ZOUK MIKAEL, Lebanon: The hum of voices mingled with the sound of Loopstache’s cover of Pharrell Williams’ upbeat hit “Happy” at Zouk Mikael’s large stone amphitheater Saturday night. One of the three events that make up this summer’s Zouk Mikael International Festival, “Light FM 25 Years: Music Celebrated” focused on local, rather than international, performers.
The radio station chose to celebrate its quarter-century milestone with a hit-and-miss evening of music by half a dozen local bands given airtime over the years. Performances by Jammit the Band, Sandmoon, Loopstache, Pindoll, Mashrou’ Leila and Who Killed Bruce Lee were interspersed with mellow tracks courtesy of the station’s DJs and the ramblings of the eccentric compère.
The atmosphere at the amphitheater was closer to a festival than a traditional concert and during the first half of the evening attendees socialized, turning their attention sporadically to the stage. Between each set, Light FM presenter Tanguy, known for his morning show “La Bonne Humeur,” filled the intervals between performances with his personal brand of inane banter. Seemingly more at home on the radio than in front of a crowd, his somewhat awkward stage presence proved amusing – even if only accidentally.
The quality of Saturday’s performances varied widely. The upbeat reggae-oriental fusion of Jammit the Band and the mellow sound of Sandra Arslanian and her group Sandmoon were followed by a patchy but enthusiastic performance of an eclectic range of covers by Loopstache.
The audience gradually swelled as the evening progressed, a small section dancing in front of the stage, while others relaxed on the terraced seating or enjoyed a drink and a chat.
When Pindoll, headed by consummate performer Erin Mikaelian, took to the stage, the band’s unique sound and strong onstage presence succeeded in capturing the attention of the crowd.
Clad in fishnet tights, dominatrix-style stiletto heels and a black trench coat, a blue beret perched atop her dark hair, Mikaelian strutted her stuff center stage, flanked by her four male counterparts, whose quiet presence complemented her theatrics.
A cover version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “I Put a Spell on You,” demonstrated the seductive power of Mikaelian’s voice, which alternates between breathy little-girl chatter and powerful, punky outbursts.
Following the number, the singer divested herself of her flared coat to enthusiastic cheers, revealing a black top and high-waisted leather shorts. Channeling something of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O, blended with the disheveled sexiness of Helena Bonham Carter in “Fight Club,” she led the band in a number of tracks from the group’s debut album, “Twisted Times.”
Once the audience’s blood was pumping, the stage was set for the highlight of the evening, a set by Lebanon’s global music export, Mashrou’ Leila.
Following the launch of their third album “Raasuk” in September last year, the five-strong group has been touring extensively in Europe and the Middle East and the quality of their performance reflects years of gigging experience.
The only one of the six groups to have attracted a large following overseas, Mashrou’ Leila was evidently the main draw of the evening for the majority of the crowd, who gathered around the front of the stage for the band’s 40-minute performance.
Polished renditions of tracks from their latest album were paired with a number of their older hits, including “Raksit Leila,” “Fasateen” and “Im-Bim-Billilah,” which were enthusiastically received by fans keen to sing along and dance to Haig Papazian’s elegiac violin melodies.
A haunting cover of Jacque Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” performed with goose bump-inducing passion on the band’s third album, proved too slow for the festival crowd, but an unexpected cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” sung in Arabic by charismatic frontman Hamed Sinno, was a hit. Performed with humor and characteristic skill, it was undoubtedly an improvement on the original.
Pre-concert controversy, caused by homophobic comments published on Facebook by a certain local politician, appeared not to have had a negative impact on Mashrou’ Leila’s performance.
Sinno’s versatile voice and electrifying stage presence proved as successful a combination as ever, as he alternated sweet-voiced melodies with distorted passages relayed through a bull horn, dancing during instrumental interludes with an enthusiasm that matched that of the band’s fans, as they crowded around the stage.
The night finished with a polished performance by three-piece Who Killed Bruce Lee, whose high-quality, high-energy set was seemingly undiminished by the mass desertion of the audience, more than half of whom melted away after seeing Mashrou’ Leila.
A skilled trio with a loyal local following, Who Killed Bruce Lee deserved a larger crowd, their performance undoubtedly ranking among the top three of the evening. Happily, those who remained to hear them play gave the band a warm reception.
The Zouk Mikael International Festival continues Aug. 7 with “Mike Massy meets Sary and Ayad Khalife in NASEEJ,” the world premier of a musical journey with a Sufi soul, directed by Nagy Souraty. For more information, please visit www.zoukmikaelfestival.org.