Live Music + Gig Reviews

Beirut @ KOKO, London

26 June 2007

Having spoken to a number of friends who’ve staggered back from last weekend’s Glastonbury Festival, there are a couple of things they agreed on: The Killers sounded better on the Beeb than they did if you were actually there, they are so not taking the coach again if they go next year, and that one of the unexpected highlights of the weekend was Beirut’s appearance on the Jazz world stage on the Sunday.

This boded well, I thought, for young Zach Condon’s biggest London show to date, just two days and one freebie taster show on the South Bank later, at Camden’s gaudy, nosebleed-hued Koko. Despite his Glasto success, Condon ambled on stage with zero fanfare, accompanied by a band that included Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost of A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the usual collection of trumpets, mandolins and ukuleles.

The set kicked off with a new song, though not one that strayed too far from their trademark sound, before diving into material from his album Gulag Orkestar.

If you’ve yet to encounter him, Condon plays a kind of jazzed up take on the music of Eastern Europe, ancient sounds with a modern edge. There are touches of Klezmer and Celtic in there too. On his album, this often sounds fairly downbeat and mournful in a floaty, folky way but it came wonderfully alive on stage. I was worried that the music might struggle in a venue like Koko, but despite being sold-out and packed to capacity, the music more than held its own.

There’s something surprisingly joyous and rousing about their sound, and despite being a twenty-something be-fringed fellow from Sante Fe, he manages to evoke the heart and power of real-deal Balkan gypsy gods like Boban Markovic without coming off like a bandwagon-jumper.

Though blessed with a superb baritone voice, Condon used a loudhailer to distort his vocals for much of the evening (to the admitted consternation of some) but I found this quite effective, it let the lyrics become another part of the complex soundscape and allowed the music to better work its magic.

And there was magic there, though the crowd were rather staid it has to be said, with surprisingly few giving in to the need to let their arms snake above their heads in the way such songs call for. It took the uplifting burst of brass that was the encore to really get everyone going. And then, just as everything was clicking into place, just as the atmosphere was reaching some kind of peak, it was over – with Condon and co departing the stage at an eminently sensible half past ten, leaving one woman plaintively asking: “but surely they have one more in them?” Maybe next time.

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