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Well worth the adulation

Beirut's frontman may look the part of a teen idol, but his band's amazing set shows he's hardly a lightweight.

June 02, 2008|Jeff Weiss | Special to The Times

In interviews surrounding the release of Beirut's excellent French pop-inspired sophomore effort, "The Flying Club Cup," the band's frontman-mastermind, Zach Condon, revealed that for inspiration during the recording process, he constantly referred to a weathered, sepia-toned image of Parisians sailing hot air balloons next to the Eiffel Tower.

The picture was absent during Friday's hourlong set at the Wiltern -- the first of two shows Beirut was scheduled to perform at the theater over the weekend -- but in its stead, placed prominently in front of the drum kit, was an amateur portrait of Condon holding an accordion, with Malibu Beach in the background.

The touch couldn't help but conjure the effect of a young Marge Simpson (nee Bouvier) painting a portrait of Ringo Starr in a bit of cartoon hero worship -- and judging from the "I Love You, Beirut" screams from the underage girls in the crowd, there was no mistaking that Condon has become a bit of a teen idol since the blogosphere discovered him two short years ago.

Just 22, the clean-shaven Condon very much looks the part, dressed nattily in a black dress shirt, khakis and a shaggy dog mop top that makes him resemble a sorority crush more than a multi-instrumentalist prodigy.

But sonically, Condon's music is far removed from the saccharine pop that characteristically accompanies such adulation.

Backed by a seven-piece mini-orchestra, Beirut's sweeping, romantic visions channel the sound of pensive French pop and the swooning, sad strains of Balkan brass bands.

Commencing with the Gallic melancholy of "Nantes," Condon ran through a set list evenly split between "Flying Club Cup" material and that of his band's similarly impressive debut, 2006's "Gulag Orkestar."

In between, he managed to slip in a few new tunes, a cover of a song from Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso and even a mariachi number that resembled Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, minus the whimsy.

Preternaturally confident in both his stage demeanor and his abilities, the New Mexico-raised troubadour alternated between the role of conductor and lead singer, lifting and raising his arms with each symphonic flare of the ukuleles, accordions, trumpets, euphoniums, violins, organs and trumpets backing him, rocking and swaying as though mystically attuned to the vibrations and rhythms.

But as impressively as his band re-created the feel of long-forgotten sounds and scenes, Condon -- specifically his precocious, almost extraterrestrial voice -- was the real star of the show.

No matter how many times you've seen Condon and Beirut, something jarring occurs when the baby-faced balladeer opens his mouth to let out his haunting, world-weary wail, a baritone blast that speaks to a sort of longing and desperation that seems almost impossible for someone that young to grasp.

Indeed, no matter what picture hangs in the background, Condon & Co. manage to capture a rare blend of transcendence and mystery that amply justifies the acclaim and idolatry.

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