BYBLOS: On Saturday night, the band Nouvelle Vague proved its ability to invent and perfect - but ultimately strain - a gimmick. The French collective opened the fifth annual Byblos International Festival beneath a balmy summer sky with a performance of 16 songs and four encores, all raucous and fun yet somehow lackluster.
Established four years ago by Marc Collin and Olivier Libaux, Nouvelle Vague is premised on a clever linguistic serendipity - nouvelle vague, new wave and bossa nova all mean the same thing, so a French band doing covers of new wave hits from the early 1980s in a Brazilian bossa nova style makes some sort of sense.
Collin and Libaux, both arrangers and producers, unearth and rework songs by the Dead Kennedys, the Specials, the Cramps, Joy Division, the Cure, the Clash, Depeche Mode, New Order, Blondie and more. Then they enlist a rotating roster of young singers to do the vocals. The idea is that these fetching ingenues are all too young to have listened to the tracks the first time around, so they cover them without sounding anything like the originals.
The result, as evidenced by two infinitely enjoyable albums released in 2004 and 2006, is a wildly inventive collection of dreamy, spacey, ironically construed love songs that allow listeners to indulge the soundtrack of their angst ridden youth without having to re-live any of the actual dread, anxiety or alienation that fueled the music in its original incarnation. Nouvelle Vague layers its nostalgia with a thick and gooey gloss. Imagine the punk anthems of your past being sung to you in bed, lullaby style, by a saucy girl-next-door type with a breathy voice and a kooky French accent.
Byblos is the only one of Lebanon's major summer music festivals that is going ahead as planned this year. It was also the only one to make it off the starting blocks last summer, with a performance by aging French crooner Francis Cabrel in late June and a show of Barbara Hendrick's peculiar jazz-opera hybrid (backed by the surgical precision of the Magnus Lindgren Jazz Quartet) in early July. The rest of the Byblos program for 2006, and the entirety of the Baalbeck and Beiteddine festivals, were cancelled due to the outbreak of war, 34 days of Israeli bombardment and a blockade that lasted through the dog days of summer.
As such it is difficult, and perhaps uncouth, to quibble over quality. In a season of mass cancellations and postponements on the cultural front, one can't help but marvel at the organizers' determination to continue, and be thankful for the excuse to enjoy an evening of live music in the open air.
The audience that turned up for Byblos' opening night was respectable in size, but it didn't fill the beachside bleachers by a long shot. Nouvelle Vague pleased and delighted with covers of the Clash's "Guns of Brixton," Public Image Limited's "This Is Not a Love Song," XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel," Tuxedomoon's "In a Manner of Speaking" and, of course, Joy Division's ultimate anthem of fatalist angst "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
The crowd, for the most part, loved it and bopped along happily with Nouvelle Vague's two guest vocalists, who, in kind, bounced around barefoot for the duration of the show. They had zero stage presence or charisma, but it didn't really matter. Never introduced or named, they were anyone and everyone and to prove that you too can be a star, they pulled about a dozen women onstage for the last of their encores, Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough."
Earlier, Nouvelle Vague's crass and screechy version of the Dead Kennedys "Too Drunk to F***" followed by singer Melanie Pain's commentary in French - loosely translated: "We were told not to say 'f***' in Lebanon, that it would be bad to say 'f***' but still we say 'f****'" - was more gratuitous than subversive in its celebration of bad language, especially considering that Byblos isn't a nightclub where all in attendance are of a legal age to imbibe and fornicate but a festival frequented by families and, on this particular Saturday night, an awful lot of young children.
Nouvelle Vague's albums are luscious and light, but judging from the band's performance at Byblos, the transition from CDs to the live stage doesn't entirely work. With the volume cranked up and the pre-recorded sounds of chirping crickets and crowds jammed into the mix, the band radically reduced the distance between theirs and the original versions of the songs they cover. But whether one deems the show good or blandly average, it was a welcome reprieve.