BYBLOS, Lebanon: Swathed in wreaths of onstage smoke, the silhouetted forms of Massive Attack were dwarfed by the LCD message behind them – “We want Google to be the third half of your brain.”
The British trip hop pioneers gave an outstanding performance at the Byblos International Festival Tuesday. The gig combined some of their best-known tracks with a captivating visual display – tackling propaganda, capitalism, technology, drug culture, media, the wars in Iraq and Syria and the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza.
The Massive’s second Lebanon concert, following their 2004 Baalbeck Festival debut, had a Palestinian motif. Founding members Grant Marshall and Robert Del Naja visited Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian camp prior to the show. Its proceeds will be donated, in part, to a local Palestinian charity and to support ambulance services in Gaza.
The Byblos concert was a trip through Massive Attack’s songbook, escorted by a rotation of vocalists that included Deborah Miller, Martina Topley-Bird – who contributed two tracks to the 2010 “Heligoland” – plus Marshall (aka Daddy G) and Del Naja (aka 3D) and longtime collaborator Horace Andy, the only guest vocalist to appear on all five Massive Attack albums.
Topley-Bird shone in a heartfelt rendition of “Psyche” and a reinterpretation of the 1998 hit “Teardrop,” instantly recognizable thanks to the intro’s distinctive double-tap heartbeat. Face painted, dressed in a dramatic red-and-gold robe, Topley-Bird’s powerful stage presence drew the eye despite the minimal lighting, thick smoke and distracting visual projections.
For many in the audience, Andy was the star of the show. The 63-year-old vocalist’s dreadlocks may be more gray than black these days, but his voice remains a revelation, retaining the richness and power familiar to those who grew up listening to tunes like “One Love,” “Man Next Door” and “Angel” – performed with aplomb Tuesday evening.
The band kept visuals to a minimum on several of Topley-Bird’s numbers, allowing the focus to remain on her mellow vocals. For most of the show, though, the music was complimented – and at times overpowered – by video projections, which for many formed the lasting impression of the night.
Implying much but explicitly stating nothing, Massive Attack’s seamless sequences of onscreen text and video footage transformed a night of laid-back, seductive, bass-heavy tunes into a warning of, and call to action against, pervasive tools of mass control.
From a medley of pharmaceutical and recreational drugs names – accompanied by slogans such as “Live longer,” “Feel better” – the group segued into a sequence of brand names and logos, flashing by in such quick succession that they remained burned into the retina for longer than they appeared onscreen.
Del Naja, who kept interaction with the audience to a minimum, left the screaming fans to piece together the underlying messages in the visuals.
Having raised the specters of self-medication (“Mother’s Little Helper” for Millennials, anyone?) and consumer culture, the band moved on to more subtle forms of control, from state and media propaganda to the pervasive presence of technology in our lives.
Andy’s considerable stage presence – feet planted at shoulder width, arms raised to waist height, fists clenched in a timeless symbol of solidarity and people power – enabled him to hold his own during a rendition of “Girl I Love You,” accompanied by a medley of quotes about the war in Iraq and its bloody aftermath.
These drew inescapable parallels between the rhetoric employed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair to justify the 2003 invasion and that used by Barack Obama and David Cameron today in response to advances made by the self-styled “Islamic State.”
During “Future Proof,” the group tackled dependence on computers, accompanying the number with an illegible matrix of scrolling binary code, while the dystopian messages in “Safe from Harm” morphed into a commentary on social media and the erosion of language.
Accompanying the mellow crooning of “Everywhen” was a grid of common Internet searches, from “How do I download copyrighted movies?” to “My cameltoe shows in jeans.”
The highlight of the night, though, was the inspired pairing of the hypnotic tones of “Inertia Creeps” with a medley of mainstream media headlines.
The band members were polite, repeatedly thanking the audience in French and Arabic, but they steered clear of the showbiz tour practice of praising the host country.
Throughout “Inertia Creeps,” the LCD screen was lit up with headlines highlighting skewed priorities and imbalanced coverage. A headline about the rising death toll in Gaza was followed by one on Cameron Diaz’s holiday, afforded equal media coverage.
A headline condemning Lebanon’s continued use of the controversial kafala system for migrant laborers was paired with a fluff piece about plastic surgery.
The assembled crowd greeted these local headlines with whoops of delight, but the effect was not flattering. The message of the night appeared to be “It’s time to face up to your problems.”
A series of dichotomies – “Citizens vs. Clients,” “Democracy vs. Capitalism,” “Freedom vs. Security,” “People vs. Borders,” “Disobedience vs. Power” – closed the track with screams of ecstatic support from the audience, stirred up by this point into a feeling of mass revolt.
The finale of the performance featured a series of statistics relating to the war in Syria and the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza.
“Unlike our elected leaders in the U.K., who remain strangely silent, we believe in peace and justice and not war and oppression,” Del Naja told the audience to howls of approval. “So we dedicate this concert to the women, children and men in Gaza, particularly the children.”
As Miller made her way through “Unfinished Sympathy,” a series of figures related to death tolls, refugees and aid shortages flashed up onscreen.
The ultra-contemporary, ultra-professional audiovisual performance, set against the backdrop of Byblos’ ancient ruins, provided food for the brain as much as for the ears. The messages Massive Attack brought Byblos’ crowds on Tuesday might not be original, but they were commendably communicated and enthusiastically received.
The Byblos International Festival continues Saturday with a performance by Dutch symphonic metal band Epica. For more information please visit www.byblosfestival.org.