Fans of Beirut are having a really good month, particularly those that live in New York. On the heels of the announcement that there would finally – finally! – be a new record from Zach Condon’s eclectic indie project, there’s been a flurry of activity, including the release of a single and accompanying video for “No No No,” the anticipated LP’s title track. There were tour dates, too, but until last week it looked like there’d be no NYC shows until the group hit Radio City Music Hall in October, despite the inclusion of a Woodstock date in the weeks leading up to the tour proper. So when Beirut added a last-minute “secret” show at the much smaller Bowery Ballroom, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town.
And the show Beirut played last night felt, in many ways, like a kind of reward for being doggedly faithful to the band in the four years since The Rip Tide had been released. Condon and company touched on beloved tracks from each record, with the audience singing nearly every word (and some even shouting along with the trumpet notes), a dream of a setlist for anyone that’s spent this past decade obsessing over Beirut’s blend of indie pop and world music. With a five-piece band behind him, Condon’s unique vocals sparkled, warm brass interludes filling the venue on rousing hits from “Postcards from Italy” – a song Condon noted is now ten years old – to “A Sunday Smile.”
The problem was, for anyone who has had the chance to see the band since 2011, it was a set that really hasn’t changed much. Even newest single “No No No” isn’t that new to the set, as it made a debut last summer at Beirut’s Northside appearance. The only other material from the forthcoming record was a track entitled “August Holland” played very early in the set, and just as its worldly, precocious title might suggest, it sounds a lot like anything else Condon’s put together, leaving everyone guessing as to whether No No No would break any new ground, or even what past record it might resemble most.
While much of the audience seemed unfazed by this, wrapped up in relishing “East Harlem” and “Sante Fe,” there were certainly those who expected a last-minute, special stop at such an intimate venue to be something of a first listen for new songs. It could be that Condon and his band just aren’t quite ready to play anything other than the classics they’ve been tackling since 2011, and that these pre-tour dates are really more of a warm-up to get the touring blood pumping again. Even by that token, it seems that practicing the new songs in these settings was a bit of a missed opportunity. Then again, maybe it’s Condon’s aim to keep everything under wraps until the record drops in September; maybe he wants fans to wait until Radio City to hear anything novel at all.
Perhaps Condon stuck to the tried-and-true for the fans alone, a way of saying his thank-yous before retiring old songs to make way for new tracks in the setlist. And it must feel good to look out over an adoring sea of faces, excited to hear Beirut’s best cuts. With a set that stretched well over an hour, each anthem was well-played, a tightly-timed and exquisitely orchestrated masterpiece that could only come from being familiar with the tunes.
The most surprising part of the evening was found in the opening set from Helado Negro, the solo project of Brooklyn resident Roberto Carlos Lange that’s been going strong almost as long as Beirut has, but with less recognition. Like Condon, Lange is a creative visionary and multi-instrumentalist who pulls inspiration from myriad cultures, but where Beirut take a Baroque pop approach to Europe, Lange dabbles mostly in atmospheric electronica adapted from Latin roots. His vocals exhibit as much range and idiosyncrasy as Condon’s but also benefit from innovative effects that might make Lange sound booming one instant and ghostly the next.
Furthermore, his stage plot was immediately arresting, lit as he was from all sides by multi-colored lightbulbs and flanked by two silvery-tinseled Cousin It-like creatures who moved slowly along to the music, catching all the warm incandescent hues. It’s a wonder that Lange isn’t as well known as Condon; one has to question if that’s the case simply because most of his songs are sung in Spanish (it wasn’t until 2013’s gorgeous but underrated Invisible Life that English-language songs began making an appearance in his catalogue). Truly, Helado Negro’s sonic landscapes barely rely on the power of words, but in the mood set by Lange’s haunting vocal style. He’s a veteran, too, when it comes to playing live, but because he is essentially one man instead of a six-piece ensemble with brass and accordion, his sets are fluid and rarely the same thing twice. Helado Negro could be poised for a big and much-deserved breakout.
It’s still very, very early in Beirut’s tour cycle for No No No; it hasn’t even yet begun in earnest. If nothing else, Beirut is a band that takes its time, and following their career has always been an exercise in patience, as the long stretches between records can attest. Some fans may be clamoring to hear new music from their beloved Beirut, but they’re going to have to wait just a little longer while Condon keeps everyone guessing.