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One-man band has transformed into collaborative act

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There is a lot of freedom in Beirut these days.

The New York-based group has evolved from Zach Condon's one-man project into a full-fledged band where he remains the main songwriter, but isn't averse to seeking input from other members. That's why the group's third full-length, The Rip Tide, sounds different than the two previous albums, explains bassist Paul Collins.

"This album is funny, in a way. In one way he gave over a lot of control to us as a band to allow us to express our ideas more, but at the same time, he took more of a focus on writing lyrics and his vocal performance than ever, while at the same time letting go.

"This is the first record he's written (the lyrics) all by himself. His brother Ryan has always been his main collaborator," Collins says.

The bassist hooked up with Condon early in the development of Beirut, a band that incorporates traditional Eastern European music and orchestral pop. The bassist saw one of Condon's first live shows in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2006 and was so impressed, he offered any assistance he could, from setting up gigs to finding like-minded musicians Condon could perform with.

Collins helped the singer recruit some band members and was eventually asked to join Beirut himself.

"I was basically into punk and stuff, punk in a loose context. I was never very puritanical about it; I was always just a music dork.

"Zach loathes punk music. He hates it, so it's funny his drummer is a metal-head, I was a punk, his accordion player was also super into punk music. That's what made Zach unique, too: he never wanted to be part of the adolescent bulls--t, so he got right into the synth pop," Collins, 28, says with a laugh.

The first Beirut album, the acclaimed Gulag Orkestar, featured Condon performing all the instruments himself before hiring a band to back him during live shows and on subsequent recordings, including 2007's The Flying Club Cup and last year's The Rip Tide. The latter is Condon's most personal album, and found the group moving away from its world-music origins into a bigger orchestral-pop sound.

Today Beirut performs as a sextet. They will make their Winnipeg debut Monday at the Burton Cummings Theatre with Montreal-based indie-pop singer-songwriter Little Scream (Laurel Sprengelmeyer) serving as the opening act. Tickets are $31 and $41 at Ticketmaster.

Because of the complexity of the music and the meticulous arrangements, there is little room for improvisation on stage, Collins notes.

"You can endlessly change all that stuff, but in the end, it's about Zach feeling what's right. The songs are all super-arranged except for one song that's improvised. The songs are complete statements," he says.

And despite the name of the band, there have been no trips to Lebanon yet.

"We have never been to Beirut. We want to go very badly," he says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2012 E7

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