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music

Beirut settles in

“We have some friends who can really wail,” says Beirut’s Ben Lanz. “It’s a happy situation, with everyone giddy to be playing.”

Brantley Gutierrez

“We have some friends who can really wail,” says Beirut’s Ben Lanz. “It’s a happy situation, with everyone giddy to be playing.”

During a recent swing through Canada, the lush indie band Beirut found itself playing for a relaxed, picnicking crowd at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. Accustomed to enraptured club and theater audiences, the band was a little at a loss, until bassist Paul Collins grabbed a microphone and launched into an impromptu pep-rally speech.

“Back in 1984, there was this movie called ‘Footloose,’ set in a small Texas town,” Collins began ranting, as recalled by his bandmate Ben Lanz. By the end of his rebuke — “Let the kids dance!” — the entire crowd was on its feet. “Sometimes it’s good to let the crowd know it’s OK to freak out,” said Lanz recently. “That’s what we’re used to.”

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Originally the stage name for solo songwriter Zach Condon, Beirut has grown with its young leader, who is 26. When the band kicks off a new leg of its ongoing tour behind last year’s “The Rip Tide” at the House of Blues on Tuesday, it will feature an expanded version of its core lineup, which includes Condon (ukulele, trumpet), bassist Collins, Lanz and Kelly Pratt both playing assorted brass and glockenspiel, Perrin Cloutier on accordion and cello, and Nick Petree on drums. This time out, the band will expand its pocket-orchestral sound with more brass players.

“We have some friends who can really wail,” said Lanz, who plays trombone and tuba and has performed with the National and Sufjan Stevens. “It’s a happy situation, with everyone giddy to be playing together. It sounds so big and huge.”

First recognized for Condon’s restless infatuations with the mariachi he heard in his native New Mexico and the Balkan brass music and French chanson he fell for during his travels in Europe, Beirut really came into its own on “The Rip Tide,” the band’s third full-length album.

Lanz, on the phone from Brooklyn, N.Y., where the band is centered (Petree still lives in New Mexico, “but every month he debates moving here”), said he expects Beirut’s next album to follow suit.

“Everyone is really sinking their teeth into the American music of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — Motown and all that,” he said. “You layer that with what we’ve already been playing around with, the Mexican brass band and Balkan music, which we still listen to and love, as well as everyone freaking out over [Brazilian] Tropicalia the last few years.” The result is a band making music that brings an atlas of sound, anchored in Condon’s exquisite melodies, to the indie-rock intelligentsia.

“As most very talented, wide-ranging artists go, he has a really broad scope of what he likes to listen to,” said Los Angeles-based producer Griffin Rodriguez, who has worked with Condon since the album “The Flying Club Cup” (2007). “One of the really awesome things about working with him is that he’s constantly searching for a sound for himself that he really loves.”

Like a young Brian Wilson (inspired not by surfboards but Lonely Planet guidebooks), the wunderkind Condon appears to have a gentle approach to his musical autocracy.

“It’s an interesting thing — not only is he the songwriter and the bandleader, but he’s also the youngest,” said Lanz, 35. “He doesn’t have to lead with such a strong hand as a lot of bandleaders would. He’s surrounded himself with good people he trusts, and we all really have everyone’s, and his, best interests in mind.”

Lanz recalled visiting Condon at the upstate New York house where he stayed while writing the songs for “The Rip Tide.” The title track in particular — a magnificent ode to letting go that features in its finished form a swooning, bewitching refrain running coun-terpoint to the main melody — was a revelation, he said.

“He had a piano there, and he was playing through those chord changes and humming out the melody. It was really exciting to hear that one get going from the beginning.”

As a way to extend the shelf-life of the album while the band begins sketching ideas for the next one, Beirut recently released a remarkable video for the title track. In it, the camera lingers on an apparently unmanned sailboat as it drifts on the open sea. Midway through the song the video is overtaken by a breathtaking visual effect that looks like the gods are saturating the clouds with primary-colored paint.

Houmam Abdallah, the British colorist who directed the video, said that when he edited the footage he was thinking from the boat’s perspective: “I’ve had enough of what you guys think is beautiful — I want to show you my vision.”

The boat, he said, lets the viewer “see the harshness and the beauty of the water,” much as Beirut’s music expresses the conflicting emotions of being alive. “It’s so small,” said Abdallah, “and so full of hope.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.
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