BYBLOS, Lebanon: Stromae (an inversion of the syllables of the word “maestro”) is one of few Francophone artists to have repeatedly topped multiple European charts and achieve a significant measure of global fame. Born Paul Van Haver, the Belgian musician and singer was eagerly awaited by a large, mostly Francophone audience before his performance Tuesday as part of the Byblos International Festival.
Well-attuned to his audience’s expectations, Stromae performed a 90-minute set featuring mostly tracks from his 2013 album, “Racine Carrée” (Square Root), along with the hit that propelled him to fame in 2010 and still regularly spins atop the turntables of several Lebanese clubs, “Alors on Danse.”
A diverse blend of 1990s-style dance music with Caribbean and African influences and a touch of French-language torch song – Stromae is a big fan of Jacques Brel – his upbeat music blends cheery tunes with clever lyrics. These explore incongruously serious themes, from relationship issues and gender discrimination to cigarettes and lung cancer, AIDS and absentee fathers.
His concert Tuesday featured his performance trademarks, among them dramatic costumes, mesmerizing dance moves and eye-catching video footage.
The pounding beat of numbers like “Alors on Danse” fit well with accompanying video footage of scrolling lines and bright colors, but in keeping with his lyrical depth, Stromae’s visuals consisted of more than primary colors and epilepsy-inducing flashes.
A thought-provoking show with a serious tone
Three stylish black-and-white animations of the artist as a child punctuated the set list, along with a clever series of colorful, animated characters multiplied to fill the screen, which appeared to dance along with the singer.
Known for his dramatic onstage wardrobe, Stromae didn’t disappoint. Approaching the microphone gingerly, as though shy, he revealed a cardigan knitted in abstract black-and-white geometric shapes, a white shirt, black bow tie, long black shorts and long socks, pulled up to just below the knee.
Dressed to match, his supporting musicians were an amusing sight, sporting shorter shorts, longer socks and black bowler hats.
Deceptively stiff during his initial lines, Stromae surprised the audience by suddenly appearing to relax, leaping athletically from microphone to instruments – one resembling a Theremin, the other an electric drum pad – which he attacked with abandon, arms whirling, body in constant motion, silhouetted in profile against the video screens.
Having loosened up, and changing costumes from one number to the next, Stromae demonstrated his mesmerizing dance skills, his tall, angular frame by turns graceful and filled with frenzied energy. Addressing his audience in a casual, amusing manner that suggested an intimacy closer to friends chatting at a party than pop star addressing his fans, the vocalist controlled the crowd effortlessly.
At times, the sound of fans singing, rapping and shouting along almost overpowered the singer’s own voice. Repeated references to Byblos and Lebanon elicited hysterical cheers.
In spite of the location and a similar pairing of audio with video footage, Stromae’s concert was a stark contrast to Massive Attack’s appearance at the same venue a week earlier.
The visuals the British trip-hop outfit chose flashed with political and social themes, creating a thought-provoking show with a serious tone.
The complex themes addressed in Stromae’s lyrics came second to his cheerful stage persona and a performance that was all about dancing, singing and having fun.
During a song about gender stereotypes, “Tous les Memes” (All the Same), Stromae played with the audience, asking them to shout words in response to certain cues and stopping the song several times in the middle.
For “Formidable” (Wonderful), he staggered drunkenly about as he rapped about a recent breakup, before collapsing to the stage.
The haunting “Quand C’est?” (When is it?), a song about cancer, was accompanied by eerie video footage in which many-jointed black legs, like those of an enormous spider, dipped in and out of the frame. The black creature gradually encroached deeper and deeper onto the screen as the performers abandoned their instruments to cower on the far side of the stage, then were swallowed up in darkness.
By the time Stromae left the stage, the audience was riotously calling for his hit single “Papaoutai” (Where are you dad?), stamping their feet and screaming for an encore. The resultant shaking of the seating area was dramatic enough to cause one audience member to mutter ominously: “And then they all fell into the sea.”
Happily, Stromae ensured honor was satisfied with a lengthy rendition of the single that included several unexpected musical interludes.
Although partially sated by the comprehensive encore – complete with a beautifully realized final video – the crowd remained hungry for more. Stromae agreed to perform a final track, asking for ten seconds to consult with his four musicians.
Having formed a small huddle center stage, they straightened. Rather than returning to their instruments, the quintet crowded around the single mic at the front of the stage and gestured for silence.
After the 30 seconds it took the crowd to simmer down, it became clear that the a cappella sounds issuing from the five performers – their lips moving in synch – sounded vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until they reached the chorus of the cheery “Moules frites” that the audience got the joke, joining in en mass.
The musicians delivered a final a cappella version of “Tous les Memes” and bowed out, seemingly having had as much fun as their audience. An unexpected bonus that suggested the five musicians’ wide-ranging talents, along with a playful sense of humor, the unofficial second encore may well have been the highlight of the night.
The Byblos International Festival continues with Lebanese composer and pianist Guy Manoukian, who is scheduled to perform Aug. 13. For more information, please visit www.byblosfestival.org.