BAALBEK: It can be tempting in this line of work to write in formulas. This is particularly true when covering Lebanon’s outdoor events in July and August, when bodies of Celtic ancestry turn over 90 percent of their energies to sweating and brain functions can drop to near zero.
One favorite summertime trope is “the venue defeated the performance.” There are several spots around Lebanon that invite this sort of journalistic cop-out – an Ottoman-era tax farmer’s palace here, a corn kernel-shaped ruin of Modernism there.
The most beautifully intrusive of this country’s venues, however, is the complex of Roman-era ruins at Baalbek, which each summer host the Baalbeck International Festival. Beirut-based life forms may make a face at the prospect of a trek to Baalbek but this usually gives way to a grudging wonderment at the setting.
The expansive temple ruins saturate every Baalbek performance with incongruity and few bands could be more gloriously out of place there than Mashrou’ Leila.
Baalbek selected the Beirut indie band to close its 2012 edition, in a gorgeous ruin commonly called the Bacchus Temple. The venue, which front man and lyricist Hamed Sinno acknowledged with a grin, didn’t upstage the band but it was still unavoidably present.
The spark born of a 2008 sound workshop at AUB, Mashrou’ Leila (“Mashrou3 Leila” in mobile phone dialect) quickly ignited to become one of the brightest stars in Lebanon’s indie music firmament.
Their Sunday evening show mingled a handful of new tunes, destined for their impending third record, with a strong dose of their earliest hits.
Like the best international indie music, Sinno’s lyrics wander the map of contemporary human experience – from the band’s politically charged earlier work to intelligent ponderings of relationships and more fleeting human contact.
One of their earlier hits, a commentary upon the country’s wrecked social fabric, is derived from a children’s lullaby. Another, perhaps pop music’s most melodic and sing-able string of Arabic-language curses, is named after a security services roadblock (hajez).
There’s a Beiruti Arabic version of “Ne me quitte pas,” Jacques Brel’s hushed torch song from 1959. Another tune is an ode to an anonymous figure a narrator admires on the street, who he then realizes is of a gender to which he’s not ordinarily attracted.
Gyrating from humor to sensuality, augmenting his vocals with tape-recorded playback and bullhorn, Sinno is the early-Elvis hip-swivelling center of the band’s onstage presence. Yet Mashrou’ Leila is more than a seven-person delivery system for his lyrics.
The ensemble is guitar-and-percussion driven, with grace points of discrete keyboard and vocal work – courtesy of Omaya Malaeb, whose quiet onstage presence is all the more conspicuous for her being the only woman in the band – and, complementing Sinno’s lithe onstage swagger, Haig Papazian’s silky violin.
Mashrou’ Leila’s songbook rocks, but its tunes frequently have a lyrical side, which raised its head a few times Sunday evening. Indeed, the one-set show’s final song was a ballad – but the band was coaxed back on stage for another seven or eight minutes of music.
Sunday’s Baalbek performance likely won’t go down in history as Mashrou’ Leila’s best-ever Lebanon show. That privilege still belongs to the CD-launch concert the band gave for “El Hal Romancy,” about a year ago on the grounds of the Hippodrome.
The “El Hal Romancy” show saw the band animate the extravagant performance rituals of any number of A-list rockers from yesteryear, though for some reason Queen springs most readily to mind.
It wasn’t pretentious or overblown. The band accommodated the flash pots and confetti cannons as easily as they did the second acoustic-style stage (for more intimate face time with the audience) and Beirut’s sodden mid-summer heat and humidity.
Sunday evening’s performance was more penned-in by the formality of the venue. The so-called Bacchus Temple is plenty big for the reserved sit-down audience of a piano recital or acoustic jazz concert. But it felt a little (needlessly) cramped for the thousand-plus standing-room only crowd that turned out wanting to dance.
A couple of audience members wondered out loud whether a concert like this was healthy for the temple ruins. Malaeb and her keyboards were situated beside a column, whose capital and a chunk of concrete roof loomed over her like one of those precarious boulders that invariably falls on Wiley Coyote.
Quibbles aside, Mashrou’ Leila brought the Baalbeck International Festival to a rousing end. Though Bacchus – or whatever god purportedly inhabits this space – kept the audience contained in the early going, it didn’t take all that long for the performers to embrace their public with the verve they’ve cultivated so well.
Audience members were soon swaying moistly together within the temple’s confines and it wasn’t just the twenty-somethings. At one point during the concert a colleague pointed out that May Arida, the festival’s venerable president, while elevated somewhat from the throng, was among those cutting a rug.
As Sinno and his co-players reached back into the more ancient works in the band’s oeuvre, the concert began to dissolve into a sing-along. Smart phones rose into the air, not unlike the way BIC lighters used to do last century, not merely to illuminate but to record. And khalas, you sensed some god of something was pleased.