Irony at the outset last night. In the middle of her outstanding opening set (more on that later), Tune Yards’ Merrill Garbus said, “I play a tenor ukulele. Zach plays a concert ukulele. I guarantee Zach’s will sound better because he is a professional.” She was right, of course — Condon’s grown into a fearless performer with enough money to afford real instruments. But I couldn’t help but think back to his first show, when he probably was not playing a concert ukulele, and spent the night apologizing for its unwillingness to stay in tune. (He was charming at least.) Skip three years to Beirut taking the stage last night for a 20-song stunner. Forget about ukuleles staying in tune; he paused between songs to autograph one for a fan first row. Welcome to your new rubric for artistic growth.
The set was the stripped-down sister to a couple of dates at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend: The Music Hall show featured a stacked bill and Beirut in sextet form, in preparation for some glorious expansion at BAM with the Vassar Orkestar. Not that last night was lacking any glory. Condon was loose, but charmingly direct: “Let’s start with an old classic” he said with the right amount of cheek, although the room greeted the set-opening “Nantes” like it was nothing short of gospel. It was that sort of night, a superb, two-encore spin through the Beirut discog (the Zapotec and Holland stuff hit hard), with moments that bled into sheer bacchanalia (“Postcards From Italy,” “Scenic World,” “A Sunday Smile,” the Arcade Fire-popularized Ary Barroso cover of “Brazil,” for just a few). It was a party, but also it’s a science: The kid knows how to work his way around a waltz and an epically wistful, faded-photo tune, and those melismatic melodies make it easy to feign familiarity if you are drunk, or don’t know the songs, or both. Basic math. Awesome set.
Middle opener Inlets sounded good, from what I could hear, although Sebastian’s crew unfortunately bore the brunt of a chatty and impatient crowd. No such problems for early opening Tune Yards, though, who really did crush it. TY is essentially Merrill Garbus. As mentioned she works with a tenor uke, and also digital loops, floor toms, and a set of soulful pipes which flip from sultry to soulful, with phrasings rooted in the blues, African tunes, and lo-fi music theatrical expressionism. Her lyrics teeter from self-empowerment to nursery rhymes to new age slush (“You are the pull that is in your chest … TAP IT!”), leavened with a dramatic flair that could sell lines far slushier. MHOW bought it up. By the end of the set she had six similarly face-painted people with her, harmonizing to her beatboxing, baritone sax echoing her discordant arias, pounding syncopated skins while on stage (and the venue’s floor while off it). Her DIY debut Bird-Brains is available digitally for the price of an up-to-you donation at her site, and on vinyl this year on Marriage Records. Hear some at MySpace, she’s awesome. Don’t miss her at SXSW. Or anywhere.
I took a photo of the Zach’s setlist, which he crumpled into a ball by the end of the second encore because they deviated considerably, but here’s a rough-guide transcription:
02 “Mount Wroclai”
03 “East Harlem” (“a new/old song,” written when Zach was 17. “It feels good to play it again.”)
05 “Elephant Gun”
06 “The Shrew”
07 “The Concubine”
08 “Postcards From Italy”
09 “La Javanaise” (Serge Gainsbourg Cover)
10 “After The Curtain”
11 “The Akara”
14 “Scenic World”
15 “Gulag Orkestar”
Make sure to check out those photos by Santi Felipe, too. I’ll be checking in from one of the sold-out BAM shows this weekend, check for that next week.