It’s been four years since Beirut last released an album; in which time I’d more or less forgotten about the group that made Balkan folk cool about a decade ago.
So watching the band at St John at Hackney, a venue tailor-made for expansive harmonies and intricate brass, was like meeting up with an old friend.
Fortunately, to push the analogy further, this old friend hadn’t changed all that much.
Treated to a slew of songs off new album NoNoNo, most had all the oomph and yearning beauty of old, the electric piano-led ‘Perth’ and heavily percussive ‘Gibraltar’ slipping in seamlessly alongside old favourites ‘Nantes’ and ‘Santa Fe’.
Trumpets blared on ‘The Gulag Orkestar’, undiminished after so long in the repertoire, whilst ‘Postcards from Italy’ (the zippy ukulele one) was just the right side of twee.
Three brass players spread across the front of the stage, proving a sight and sound for sore senses when going for it in unison. But then the next moment the trio became sweet harmony singers, offering up vocal parts worthy of Fleet Foxes.
In the middle of it all, of course, was Zach Condon, this enigmatic American who has forged a lasting career through total immersion in Eastern European folk.
Keyboards, ukulele, keyboard and (of course) trumpet, he plays them all, and in his own way, his solos immersed in Balkan scales whilst flat beats act like a marching elephant.
At one point, whilst getting the keyboard ready between songs, Condon tells us, in a rare instance of ‘patter’, that the previous night a cable had come loose mid-song, cutting out the instrument completely. It was hardly the anxiety of a rock ‘n‘ roller, though it was an insight into the perfectionism that every song at least equal to its recorded version.
Later we learned it was the band’s last night in Europe. Could I detect relief in their voices and body language? Perhaps, and there were few other attempts to connect with the audience, save the dutiful expressions of thanks at appropriate times. These, however, were quibbles that paled in the face of such original song-writing and technical virtuosity.