Had Beirut bassist Paul Collins’s first mutton-busting experience gone any differently — FYI, mutton busting is a children’s rodeo, where young cowboys ride sheep or calves instead of bulls — he might be visiting Calgary under very different circumstances. “I’ve always wanted to visit Calgary, because where I grew up, we’d hear all about the Stampede,” says Collins, a native of Pendleton, Ore. “My family was heavily involved in the Pendleton Roundup [an Oregon rodeo event], but I was a terrible excuse for a cowboy. The first time I tried riding a calf, it wouldn’t buck, no matter how hard you twisted its tail.”
So, Collins gave up. “And I became a musician. But things could’ve been different. I never thought I’d be visiting Calgary with my cool indie rock band. I thought I’d be in Calgary fucking getting drunk, putting dip into my mouth, getting into fights. But now,” he says, with faux-bitterness, “Now, we’ve got Beirut. Woo hoo! Beirut!”
Good thing, too, as Collins’s “cool indie rock band” became one of the genre’s most successful, and distinctive, acts of the last decade. (Despite the fact that, on the Canadian summer fest circuit this year, he’s been twice forced to open for Skrillex.) But for the myriad instruments Beirut showcases — the seven-piece populates the stage with melodicas, flugelhorns and brass of all shapes and sizes — Collins maintains the band’s firmly rooted in American indie. They’re not a Neutral Milk Hotel redux or a group of Serge Gainsbourg-worshipping Francophiles, despite what critics gleaned from its breakthrough LP, 2007’s Flying Cub Cup. Nor are they a Mexican wedding band, despite the critical reception of the March of the Zapotec. Nor are they a full-flush retro-pop act, despite Collins’ admission that “Springsteen and Petty” influences littered 2011’s The Rip Tide.
Truth is, Beirut’s an ever-evolving organism, rooted neither in geography, era nor genre — and their tactful evolution is what makes them so fascinating. “Zach [Condon, the band’s founder and frontman] has constantly outdone himself, ever since he was a kid,” adds Collins. “He’s always fighting against trends, even when he grew up in Santa Fe. He never wanted to be a punk rocker; he wanted to make elegant music. Even as a child.”
That elegance, however, adopts a completely different form live — something I witnessed last week at Quebec City’s Festival D’Ete. In performance, Beirut’s songs adopt a noticeably whimsical quality: Here, audible imperfections arise, when Beirut’s brass section battles for airspace with melodicas and accordions. Other instruments, such as the keyboard or the ukulele, add ramshackle grit to Beirut standards. And despite Condon’s denial of punk rock, their songs adopt many of the genre’s most likeable qualities: Beirut sounds faster, looser and louder. In Collins’ words, the band “completely opens up” live — and it’s an experience that, in many ways, trumps anything the band has committed to tape.
“It sounds so obvious, but live, Zach wants us to sound like a band,” says Collins. “I mean, we discussed if we wanted to use in-ear monitors during our sets, so we can hear each other perfectly. It gives you more control. But Zach doesn’t want that control. He’d rather have us listening to [stage] monitors — because he wants our set to sound a little off. He wants it to sound a little fucked up. Because that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”
It’s an important distinction to make: Live, Beirut’s more interesting than they are elegant. And it’s better that way.