No, I didn’t take any poor snapshots of the band on my smart phone. I was too far away – just far enough that they looked kind of like every other band at a gig of this size: glowing sunset-coloured people in front of booming blue lights. (Except when the sousaphone came out, then one of them was a glowing pink thing with a brassy halo.)
So here’s a proper photo made by someone who makes proper photos. Specifically, the very talented Olly Hearsey of Lion Works Studios:
Live or Die
With everyone these days downloading or streaming music and video for free, musicians have so much riding on live performance. Bands can set themselves up for failure too, because while the tools for adding layers of complex, perfectly executed sounds to a recording are so readily available today, reproducing that same sound live can prove a challenge.
Take Neko Case, for example. Her last album, Middle Cyclone, is a superb work of poetry and art, full of vivid imagery and evocative, carefully placed soundscapes that transport you into her strange world. However, though Case is an impressive singer with a pleasing sense of humour, the relatively conventional arrangement of her live show when she last toured here failed to convey the same dreamy imaginings as her record.
Beirut, on the other hand, are just bloody fantastic musicians. You can tell because the decorative notes that shroud the melodies of each instrument – including Zach Condon’s warm vocals – vary subtly from those heard on the recordings. The feeling is all there, all improvised, not pre-packaged. (Also, when I saw Beirut at Meredith however many eons ago, the sound system was chucking a spazz but the band still managed to knock out an impressive performance.)
Last night’s set at the Forum in Melbourne was naturally weighted toward material from their latest album The Rip Tide, but they also played plenty of less familiar songs not lifted from any of their three albums. This showed the band has an impressive amount of material to choose from, despite having been around for only five years. Clocking in at less than an hour before their encore, however, the set did feel a bit short.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On
Trumpets, horns, ukes and accordions are not the usual, and they are what give Beirut its unique and familiar sound. What other popular contemporary band casually throws a sousaphone solo into its live set, followed by a trumpet solo?
One tends to think of loud marching bands and out-of-tune school orchestras when the word ‘trumpet’ is mentioned (or perhaps ‘strumpet’ comes to mind, depends where your mind’s at exactly), but when you add Beirut into the sentence, the trumpet becomes beautiful, subtle, gentle, whimsical – and also yes, perhaps the thing it’s best at – majestic.
There are also moments watching Beirut when I feel like I’m at an old Eastern European relative’s 50th wedding anniversary. My Czech friend who was with me had a ball, and wondered why Australians don’t clap along to everything at concerts. But Beirut is a band you can sway to, rather than dance. The sizeable but placid crowd, gathered together in what is arguably Melbourne’s most beautiful music venue*, certainly lent an atmosphere of festivity, even if we weren’t exactly bouncing off the walls.
You Must be a Pop Singer in Disguise
Where Beirut also deliver is in their multiple-whammy harmonies: not just gorgeous vocal harmonies, but brass harmonies too. It’s like a delicious layer cake. Yet the band’s arrangements and chord progressions have an easy feel that never becomes overwrought, and Condon’s charming vocals – a perfect complement to the band’s warm, brassy sound – always carry the songs.
In the end, this is great pop music in disguise, even if it has a melancholic edge.
*Just don’t try and order anything weird, like a gin and soda, because the bar staff will look at you oddly and make bad jokes. Really. No-one’s ever ordered a gin and soda at the Forum before.
The cloak room at the Forum, by the way, is completely free of charge. There was also never a line at the bar or at any of the exquisite ‘ladies rooms’. Dear Forum. I love you.