OAKLAND — From the moment Beirut‘s Zach Condon hit the stage, he was in full-on conductor mode. The Brooklyn singer, composer and frontman took fans and his band on a trip through Europe.
He led the starts and stops and unexpected instrumental breaks. While Condon was a force to hear, he also has a minimalistic side. He wasn’t much for banter, with only a few quips about a ukulele from Staten Island and an apology on what he wore: “I apologize for dressing like laundry day—but it is laundry day.”
Beirut started with “When I Die,” off Gallipoli, released last month. Starting with just a ukulele and Condon’s vocals, the song acquired trumpet and trombone for a fuller sound. “Corfu” almost seemed out of place: instrumental jazz made for smoky jazz clubs. But its sleek, sexy and hypnotic delivery had no problems making an impact.
The accordion was spotlighted on “Varieties of Exile,” also from the new album. The new instrument gelled naturally with Condon’s organ, which he reclaimed for Gallipoli.
The song conjured up the sounds of the Elephant 6 collective and Balkan songs. Indeed, much of the songs from the new album sounded like Eastern European folk ballads. “Family Curse” stepped back into a long lost and forgotten time.
The band shined with the help of the Fox Theater’s acoustics. Condon’s vocals were crystal clear. Hearing all the lyrics added emotional heft to the songs. On “No No No,” the band played up its catchy indie-folk side. The short ditty would be about as pop-friendly as this band would get. The band members came together in rapturous harmonies.
And Condon did not disappoint by also revisiting older tunes. The 23-song set not only included cuts from his first album and throughout its catalog. Beirut transitioned into “Santa Fe,” from The Rip Tide, as horns joined in to fill up the theater. The song culminated with a crowd-pleasing trumpet solo, driven by rambunctious rhythm. Beirut’s beautiful chemistry was showcased on the haunting “The Rip Tide,” with horns layering over keyboards as Condon’s vocals followed the rising and falling action.
Other highlights included the gorgeous “Postcards from Italy,” which evoked gondolas and romantic serenades with a ukulele. The band also covered “Serbian Cocek,” by New Mexico’s Hawk & A Hacksaw, who helped get Condon his start. The folky Serbian song swelled and accelerated as Condon joined in on the trumpet. It continuously gained more brass presence, providing the perfect vibe for a polka jig.
Beirut finished out the main set with indie folk slow-burner “Nantes,” off 2007’s The Flying Club Cup. Condon sang the opening lyrics, “Well it’s been a long time, long time now/ Since I’ve seen you smile.” The tune swayed suavely with trumpet melodies drizzled over the top. The band returned for a three-song encore, finishing out the night with “Gulag Orkestar.” The horns wailed and mourned alongside Condon’s haunting, evoking the unthinkable hardships of the song’s namesake in Beirut’s most memorable performance.
Helado Negro, handpicked by Beirut to open, is also from Brooklyn. But he’s completely unlike Condon. He was warm and friendly and embraced crowd interaction. He came out excitedly, saying “Hola, buenas noches” and went on in Spanish for a bit. Held Negro usually performs by himself but at the show he was backed by a violinist and saxophonist. His set consisted of beautiful down-tempo indietronica.
Helado Negro mostly performed songs from his new album, This Is How You Smile, which is out March 9. Much like Beirut’s songs sounded like they were from Eastern Europe, Helado Negro’s songs were ballads from Mexico. “Pais Nublado,” on which he sang in both English and Spanish, featured swirling atmospheric soundscapes to overlay the relative quaintness of his balladry.
He made his way back and forth on the stage and knelt at the lip to sing to fans. He even had a sing-along introducing new song “Running,” a soft and melodic tune.