BEIRUT: The Dallas-born singer Demi Evans doled out hugs, kisses, rumbling blues and rousing gospel spirituals on Monday night for the latest installment in Liban Jazz's episodic concert series. Following on the heels of successful shows by Laurent de Wilde, Bojan Z and Julien Lourau and the Erik Truffaz Quartet, Evans took to the stage at Music Hall, the cabaret-style club located in the bowels of the Starco Center, with just a keyboardist on one side (Nicolas Noel) and a guitarist on the other (her husband, composer Fred Morisset).
Heavily influenced by Nina Simone, particularly the late jazz and blues singer's "Mississippi Goddamn"-era of powerful, forthright civil rights activism, Evans commanded rapt attention from the packed house, offering as much affirmation as entertainment.
"I'm so happy to be here," she said breathlessly after completing her first song. "Are you happy to be here?" she asked. In response to applause that slowly escalated from tentative to thunderous, she announced: "I am Lebanon. I am here. I am Lebanon. I am you."
Evans reprised that sentiment numerous times throughout the evening as she performed songs from her 2006 album "Why Do You Run," including the title track, "Platinum Age" and "Thinking about the Past," along with interpretations of standards such as "Blues in Pink"
At a time when luring international talent to Lebanon is difficult, to say the least, Liban Jazz founder Karim Ghattas says Evans was fearless about her trip to Beirut. "She wanted to come," he recalls, "and a soon as it was a concert for the Lebanese Red Cross, there was absolutely no hesitation at all." The show was indeed a benefit, with tickets going for the proletarian price of LL10,000 a piece.
In the style of both a gospel preacher and a slam poet at once, Evans created a continuous stream of vocal material. She cooed to the crowd intimately one moment, belted out the grittier, nastier registers of the blues another. In between, she delivered, well, a pep talk, one that was beautifully intoned and much appreciated by the 700-strong crowd.
In her graceful black dress with belled sleeves and black lace lining her dramatic decolletage, Evans played the part of a diva, cooling herself with a black lace fan and lamenting between songs, "I need a hug." But her message was a generous one, entirely devoid of narcissism.
"I'm a crier," she said. "I cry at any given moment - any pleasure, any smile, anyone will do. But I'll hold off for now. I know crying can be frustrating and boring. And I know you've seen enough crying."
With that, she segued into an appeal to the women in the house: "You gotta be free, girls. This is your world." Rare is the female singer to grace a Lebanese stage and assert a woman's inner beauty rather than the Pygmalion fantasy of a virgin-whore hybrid assisted by multiple plastic surgery sessions. From "know yourself, be yourself" girl power to a rumination on the ups and downs of love, Evans hit the highs and lows of the blues.
Shifting into gospel mode, she skirted religion proper, bellowing out: "There's just living and not living; there's nothing else." In context, this reverberated in the audience like a welcome release from the sectarian politics of the day.
In combining blues and gospel into the same, seamless repertoire, Evans danced on a fine line, between "God's music" and "Devil's music," or "Musique de Dieu" and "Musique du Diable." And she did so in style, combining pleasure, passion and pain with her mantra of kindness and respect.
At one point, she looked out into the assembled masses and said: "I want to find me a nice little apartment by the sea. No, no, no. I don't want to take advantage of your kindness." A man in front responded, in effect: "You can take advantage of my kindness any day." Evans turned, smiled and gave the man a hug.
Liban Jazz continues its concert series in September with a performance by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem.