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Owen Pallett and Beirut deliver unconventional, beautiful non-rock

The band "Beirut" performs

Beirut with Owen Pallett et les Mouches

  • At the Phoenix Concert Theatre
  • In Toronto on Tuesday

It was a sort of double reunion for Toronto's Owen Pallett on Tuesday. Not only was he opening for Beirut, the Brooklyn-based, Balkan-influenced sextet whose second album, The Flying Club Cup, he helped record, he was also back onstage with les Mouches, the arty, adventurous trio he played with in the early aughts. Adding to the sense of connectedness, Pallett later joined Beirut for two tunes, including the rollicking encore, Mount Wroclai (Idle Days).

But what made the evening work wasn't simply the set of overlapping relationships between the two bands, because the music Beirut and Pallett make is as unconventional as it is uncommonly beautiful.

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If the electric guitar is the quintessential rock instrument, then this was probably not a rock show. There is no guitar in Beirut; although front man Zach Condon occasionally strummed a six-string ukulele, the rhythmic harmony role normally taken by the guitar was instead assumed by Perrin Cloutier's bayan accordion. Meanwhile, although les Mouches's Matt Smith did have a guitar on him for part of Pallett's set, his Fender generally played second fiddle to Pallett's looped violin parts.

Instead, the instruments that dominated tended to be those that underscored the non-rock content in both bands. For Pallett, that meant looped and layered violin with splashes of pulsing, minimalist keyboard, pointing to dance music and contemporary classical influences.

As for Beirut, while the accordion often dominated the rhythm section, vacillating between Balkan dance band and French chanson flavours, the band's lead instrument was trumpet, often played in mariachi-style harmony and sometimes accompanied by trombone, French horn or tuba.

Although Pallett is once again working with his bandmates from les Mouches, the opening set they offered was far more his than theirs. In fact, he started out solo, offering a crowd-teasing (and pleasing) version of the Beirut song Cliquot.

It wasn't a cover, exactly - Pallett co-wrote the song with Condon, and sings it on Beirut's Flying Club Cup album - but neither was it much like the studio version, drawing its strength from the lush forest of violin lines Pallett built up with his looping gear.

Pallett's loops also dominated when Smith and drummer Rob Gordon were onstage, in part because Pallett seemed particularly interested in playing with the rhythmic possibilities of a metronomic pulse. Although it sometimes conveyed the relentless kineticism of dance music, it was less about the groove than about energizing the melody, as the trio made plain with its ecstatic rearrangement of Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.

Like Pallett, Beirut's Condon was more than happy to reinvent his songs for live performance. Some of that is probably a matter of practicality, as there is no way he could tour with enough players to fully recreate the lush layers of brass and strings that turn up on the album.

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But it also makes the music far more immediate and affecting. Because he has to carefully marshal his forces, Condon has built more drama and dynamics into the live arrangements. The Shrew, for example, built gradually to an explosive conclusion, then picked up again after the crowd offered its "wow," while Nantes made excellent use of the contrast between the rhythm section's danceable vigour and the delicacy of the interlocking horn lines.

Condon's singing, a mellifluous croon that sits somewhere between the high style of Bryan Ferry and the mocking insouciance of Bill Murray, brought out the warmth of quieter tunes such as Cherbourg or Postcards from Italy. But the overall energy was more transformative than soothing, particularly when the rhythm section cranked things up on new songs like Santa Fe or the rollicking Vagabond.

Beirut and Owen Pallett also play the Phoenix on Aug. 4.

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