A rock band’s ability to hold an audience in thrall, to sustain attention and enthusiasm and rapture, can be measured in text messages—the fewer, the merrier. Skilled performers will induce such unrelenting bouts of waving/ shaking/stomping/whooping/gyrating that patrons have neither the time nor the inclination to meddle with their consumer electronics; conversely, less stimulated crowds, unimpressed by listless theatrics, turgid ballads, meandering jazz odysseys, and languid, ukulele-tuning interludes, will suddenly become absorbed in making late-dinner plans, checking baseball scores (avast, ye hapless Mets), inquiring as to the state of the laundry. The masses now vote with their iPhones: The more of them you see, the more restless the masses have become.
In this regard, Beirut is struggling. “Make love to my ears!” someone hoots at shyly grinning frontman Zach Condon as he skips onstage on this unseasonably humid Wednesday night at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. “We shall,” Zach affirms immediately—a confident parry that
I find encouraging. His band is a lovely, intricate fount of worldly delicacy— warbling trumpets, lilting accordion, needlepoint violin—that struggles to assert itself. Last year, the then 20-year-old, who had fled New Mexico for Brooklyn with some long, aimless European excursions in between, emerged unexpectedly with Gulag Orkestar, a skronking set of Balkanized folk-pop ditties anchored by his hypnotic voice, a warmly vibrating baritone that doesn’t much care for consonants (not that anyone minded, much). “Postcards from Italy,” a slick and stylish jumble of uke/trumpet/tambourine/baritone, popped splendidly on a 15-song playlist of randomly downloaded and sadly indistinguishable indie-pop MP3-blog pretenders. Zach’s head, alas, nearly popped too, onstage last spring at the Knitting Factory for Beirut’s official first show, clearly taken aback by both the crowd’s size and enthusiasm, nervously grappling with a temperamental ukulele, a Hitchcock-tense glaze to his eyes, as though we were all holding not cell phones but bazookas.
Ah, but he toured a bit, unloaded an EP or two, cut a clear-eyed path through the fawning praise, weathered a few blips (a brief hospitalization for exhaustion late last year), and now presides over a sold-out Delacorte throng with a quickly conceived, French-kissed sophomore full-length, The Flying Club Cup, to promote. He is slightly more sure of himself now but every bit as dorkily sweet as before, a real Michael Cera vibe, just an octave lower and with more passport stamps. “Welcome to Shakespeare in the Park,” he jokes. “I’m Romeo.”
He is not Romeo. The throng greets Zach raucously, but though Beirut has now bloomed into an eight-man crew (which collectively weighs about 250 pounds), allowing for increased volume and visual sweep and, on one occasion, the rare and mythical triple-ukulele configuration, this band is still super-dull live. Flying Club Cup has a lighter touch, sharper focus, and more romantic air . . . bleagh. No, I don’t know quite what any of that means either, beyond “It basically sounds exactly like Gulag, but weighted with greater expectation.” He absorbs his passport-stamp influences well, and his World’s Fair cabaret style globe-trots without leaving massive Ugly American carbon footprints in its wake. Zach has made clear in interviews that he’s a sieve and a sponge and a mirror—if Travelocity makes an enticing offer tomorrow, a year from now we could be hearing his earnest takes on Tropicália. That’d be splendid. But what we’ve got now is still a style in search of songs, (slightly more articulated) words in search of meanings, places in search of homes, moods in search of real emotions, postcards in search of novels. What emerges is a pleasant pastoral blur, exotic pageantry viewed from the window of a speeding train, seen but never touched. An hour and a half of this live is a real slog, inspiring a sympathetic and attentive crowd to nonetheless betray signs of fidgety unease, polite smiles bathed in the glow of LCD screens.
This despite Zach’s winsome anxiety, his loopy banter (“I’ve begged and prayed for winter ever since summer started”), his nervous tics (constantly taking on and taking off his coat, to moderate audience squeals each time), his bizarre crowd interaction (“What a beautiful boy you are, little boy!” some dude keeps shouting, to confused chuckles from Zach and the rest of the crowd alike). You want to like this kid, and you do like this kid, but a waltzing accordion pulse seems to dominate every song: What makes a Beirut track refreshing amid the offerings of other bands in the Brooklyn vegan nexus makes those same tracks indistinguishable from each other. Zach’s resonant baritone never fails to hypnotize, but partly because it never tries to do anything else.
So the crowd cheers, but demurely—some tunes they immediately recognize, some they don’t, none of the former justifying the distinction. I am sensing respectful boredom. Partly, the opening band is to blame for this: the manic, maniacal Balkan Beat Box, deploying much of Beirut’s weaponry (all those braying bloc-party horns), but in service of a relentless dance party led by wild-eyed, Mohawked frontman Tomer Yosef, who is shirtless before the first clarinet solo and sprints around shouting things like “Feels so good, makes me wanna feel better!” and “I wanna see your ass, not your face!” Their drummer also presides over a laptop, from which exudes viciously viscous beats covering the spectrum from traditional klezmer to ferocious, snarling hip-hop, terse horn riffs and rubbery basslines fusing together despite often wildly disparate speeds and temperatures. On record (consider this year’s Nu Med), an undertone of monotony creeps in, but live, it’s absolutely mesmerizing—Tomer’s charisma undeniable, the band’s momentum unstoppable. Everyone in the crowd is standing, dancing, gyrating, or at least stomping in place. No one is sending a text message, LCD-illuminated faces happily replaced by arhythmically wobbling asses.
Perhaps it’s unfair to contrast this wild scene with Beirut’s, which consists of a few upright ladies doing the wavy-armed Stevie Nicks thing and one gentleman near the front theatrically conducting (maybe he’s the “beautiful little boy” guy) amid a sea of law-abiding citizens dutifully obeying the captain’s seat-belt sign.
The dude in front of me, who a half-hour ago was happily among those wobbling arhythmically, is now half-enthusiastically banging an empty water bottle against the railing in front of him. Yeah, all right, this is unfair: Beirut seeks a different vibe entirely—Balkan Music Box maybe, something more demure and restrained and nuanced. Those can all too easily be code words, alas, for less flattering reactions. Flying Club Cub‘s “A Sunday Smile” gets at what Beirut seeks to get at best, slow and mournful and atmospheric, letting Zach’s basso profundo rise above the din of jousting horns and that omnipresent accordion. He sounds sad, but we don’t know why, and it doesn’t make us feel particularly sad ourselves. Plenty of basso, not enough profundo. To have that sound, to have that voice, to have all this attention—Zach is miles beyond the curve and primed for a breakthrough (one he’s self-effacing and appealing enough to make you hope he achieves), but the result as of now is pretty, but vacant. Perhaps one day soon the captain will not only disable the seat-belt sign but forbid the use of all electronic devices. The Delacorte crowd rises only once during Beirut’s set, at its conclusion, to give Zach a standing ovation.