‘I always wanted to play in a Butlins Holiday Resort,’ says Zach Condon in cheeky reference to tonight’s surroundings. People laugh. This is partly because it’s difficult not to laugh at a man holding a French horn, and partly because he is right. The stage backdrop is pure cabaret, and you half expect the acts to be announced by a fat man holding an eighties microphone and half a pint of decrepit bitter.
A curious setting indeed, but then Beirut are a curious band. Tonight they have a curious support act (Magic Arm – a pleasant one-chap-band who layers folksy live samples to quirky effect), a curiously defective ukulele, and a frontman in a curiously ill-fitting jumper. Standard indie-fare this is not.
Zach, founder member and creative muscle behind Beirut, is what’s known in the music business as ‘an American’. This is unfortunate for Zach because he suffers from rampant Europhilia, and tonight’s set includes large chunks of Beirut’s two albums – two albums which take the more traditional strands of European music and fuse them with varying degrees of success. As a show it’s all very haphazard, with Zach and his buddies regularly swapping instruments whilst forgetting the set list (if there ever was one), and there’s an undoubted charm to it all. But here lies part of the problem – Beirut are charming in the way that if you stumbled across them in a Macedonian drinking den you would sit down, listen for a while, tap your foot, and return to your hostel feeling thoroughly Balkan. A working men’s club just outside Leeds is a different kettle of ball games.
True, the opening accordion riff of ‘Mount Wroclai (Idle Days)’ gets an enthusiastic cheer, as do ‘Brandenburg’ and ‘Nantes’, but the crowd never really gets out of first gear. Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine what second gear might look like, but many of Beirut’s more plodding pieces appear to inspire nothing more than glaze-eyed apathy. The audience perks up briefly for ‘Postcards from Italy’, but two songs later even the potentially rousing ‘Gulag Orkestar’ falls strangely flat.
The tunes are well-performed, and Condon’s live voice is wonderful, wistful and woozy, but in terms of a communal musical experience something is missing. As events draw to a close a sacrificial percussionist flings himself crowdwards and is awkwardly borne aloft, but the indie-kids of Leeds are not so easily appeased. Encore duties are politely carried out, the big lights come on, and the sell-out crowd blinks off into the night.
Charming? Yes. But many souls remain unstirred tonight, and the whole thing, ultimately, was as underwhelming as a Bultins holiday resort.