Friday, October 14, 2011

Beirut / Lætitia Sadier - Live 2011.10.09 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

For what it's worth, this is a fairly new band to me. I barely knew anything about them, but my bandmates recommended the show to me and I figured I should go. I'm glad I did.

Artist: Beirut
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 9 October 2011
Opening Act: Lætitia Sadier

Setlist (adapted from
01. Scenic World
02. The Shrew
03. Elephant Gun
04. Vagabond
05. Postcards from Italy
06. The Concubine
07. Santa Fe
08. A Sunday Smile
09. East Harlem
10. Forks and Knives (La Fête)
11. Nantes
12. Port of Call
13. Cherbourg
14. Goshen
15. After the Curtain
16. Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)
17. The Penalty
First Encore:
18. My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille
19. Gulag Orkestar
Second Encore:
20. Serbian Cocek [A Hawk and a Handsaw cover]

I had heard that the opener, Lætitia Sadier, is/was a member of the currently-inactive band Stereolab. I think I'm supposed to like them, so I was curious what she would do. Despite the alternative/post-/experimental rock background of her band, her solo act is really just her and a guitar. I was pleased to see her go Billy Bragg-style and stick to an electric, but after a couple songs I realized that she was never going to alter the tone of her guitar nor her style, and I was left disappointed.

In fact, truth be told, I thought her entire performance was disappointing. Lætitia is a good singer, and she can certainly play guitar, but unfortunately her melodies, rhythms, and structures were decidedly minimalist and predictable. I wanted to like her; she seemed cool, and she seemed like she could be a good person to have in a band, but her solo music just wasn't very good. On two songs, she borrowed some of Beirut's musicians to back her up, and even if they didn't add much, the added complexity made those songs stand out far above the others. But the rest of her set faded into repetition.

Beirut currently functions as a six-piece, grounded in lead singer and ukulele/flügenhorn-player Zach Condon. The band entirely eschewed guitars in lieu of more interesting instruments. Perhaps most important was the presence of an accordionist, who provided the primary framework of the sonic continuum. A bassist (who preferred an electric stand-up over his bass guitar), a drummer, and two additional horn players/vocalists filled out the sound. A piano and a glockenspiel were also occasionally employed. I was impressed by how easily the band made music that one could call "indie rock" without relying on any of the instrumental clichés of the movement.

The music was great. It's been called folk or world music, and there are clear influences from these genres, but the band is really going in a different direction. It sounds like the band wants to make distinctly modern music but with a very keen awareness of the past – a past that goes far beyond just the English-speaking world of the 60s. The choice of instruments makes a genre hard to define, because the combination almost seems to come from every direction at once. However, Some sort of folk tendency does seem to shine through, but the music is too dynamic and complex to truly justify such a plain label.

The point is, Beirut can see what musicians around them are doing, and what musicians have done before, and they take the precise elements they like from each and reconstitute them in a beautiful fashion. They aren't breaking barriers or reinventing sound, but they know how to paint an aural picture that sounds delightfully fresh. For example, their rhythms were consistently unpredictable and quite varied. Despite the presence of a typical rock drumset, I never heard a cliché drumbeat – the percussive rhythms were always something delicately innovative. And to top it off, the whole production was incredibly well mixed. I don't know if it was the band's personnel or the venue's, but the show just sounded great. It fit together fantastically, and no instrument dominated the mix or was buried too deeply. The horn players knew exactly how far from the mics to stand and exactly how to keep a constant pitch. What an incredible performance!

The show was actually just a bit short, clocking in around 75 minutes. Nonetheless, they blasted through their setlist and played some twenty songs, all the while hardly pausing to talk. At the end of the set, everyone but Zach left, and he performed a song alone with his ukulele. After he left, the whole band returned quickly for a standard encore. After that, the audience began to head for the doors, but the house lights did not come on, and sure enough, the band came back for one more song.

For not knowing much about the band, I was thoroughly impressed and quite pleased. Even if the opener disappointed me, the main act was great. I highly recommend seeing this band live.

Lætitia Sadier: D
Beirut: A


Anonymous said...

You are a good person, better reviewer.

JDP said...

Man, excellent review and I'm so glad that you got your hands on a set list! I agree with your assessment of the band as a synthetic enterprise; that is to say, a band that amalgamates disparate pasts into a unique-sounding present.

I was also very pleased with the set and would rank it among the best three performances (along with Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird) that I've seen since moving to St. Louis. The audio mix was, indeed, perfectly executed and even the minimalist stage lighting was tasteful and interesting.

Patti said...

Ah yes, I forgot to mention the lighting! I loved the overhead lights. It reminded me of the first time I walked around downtown Vienna, right right the New Year when the Christmas lights were still up.

As for the behind-stage lights that kept making me squint, I could have done without those.