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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Patti Smith in Beirut

By way of the LA Times' Babylon & Beyond blog, I see that one of my all time favorite artists, Patti Smith, brought her revolutionary soul to Beirut to "sing for the "regeneration" of the city of Beirut and to voice her rejection to war."
The celebrated 1970s rock icon turned political activist performed near the old Phoenician port at the opening of the Byblos music festival, one of numerous music events taking place this summer in Lebanon after violence has subsided in the country and tourists have started to flood in again.

"To all mothers and children who lost children, all unnecessarily in war, which seems to me in our time something we can make obsolete," Smith said before dazzling the audience with "Qana."

The song is pointedly political. It's about the children who died in an Israeli air strike on a Lebanese village during the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Here are some excerpts:
There's no one in the village, not a human nor a stone... Children are gone and a mother rocks herself to sleep. Let it come down, let her weep… Some stayed buried, others crawled free... Little bodies, tied head and feet, wrapped in plastic, laid out in the street… The new Middle East… The dead lay in strange shapes… Wine to blood, Oh Qana, the miracle is love.
If you're interested (but be warned, some of these images are quite disturbing...or at least they should be. If they're not, I fear for your soul), here's a montage of photos taken by Paolo Pellegrin during the 2006 war in Lebanon which spurred Patti to write Qana in the first place, set to the song:

For some local color, we look to Lebanon's Daily Star:
It's July 8, 2008, the year that she graces us with her presence. "She" is the legendary, multitalented multi-instrumentalist Patti Smith. The venue is the Byblos International Festival.

The shops and restaurants of the old souq in Jbeil (aka "Byblos") are full. The quarter's paved streets are overflowing with children running everywhere. The flower garden and the interlocking trees above your head give the place a surreal, magical feel as you walk down the road that leads to the Fisherman's Port with its old stone buildings and wooden boats.

Near the venue, people are stalled, waiting to be searched. It's now 8:30 p.m. The stars are shining and the people are whining because the security process is slow, with only two x-ray machines available and four irritated guards on the job.

Further along, there are tents serving drinks and another with a few tables serving saj sandwiches. Surprisingly, the drinks aren't that much more expensive than any normal night club or pub....

...Audience members are gently tapping their feet and swaying to the music. Smith dedicates a few songs to Lebanon and the crowd roars its approval. Some songs stick more than the rest, like the upbeat "Dancing Barefoot," an ode to heroin. People are listening to her every word, grooving to the song as she sings.

She sings the Jimmy Hendrix classic "Are you Experienced?" and plays the flute in some parts. The crowd rushes the front of the stage. People are dancing, jumping, singing and grabbing at her outreached hands. After this song, the security detail forces people back to their places, but not for long. As the band strikes up "Because the Night," the entire audience again rushes to the front for some dancing and singing.

Smith's band plays beautifully and smoothly, knowing how to complement the songs and when to put in a lick, knowing how to send shivers up the audience members' spines. You feel they are professionals, that they have done this a thousand times but you sense they aren't bored. The music sounds fresh. If people came to this show seeking a nostalgia act, they sure weren't thinking that now.

Smith speaks a few words about Lebanon and Qana before singing her song "Qana," which she composed in response to the Israeli Air Force's return to the southern village during the 34-day war of the summer of 2006.

As she sings, an eerie silence falls over the crowd. They are seated, pensive. For many in the audience, she sings the truth, she sings of peace. For others, its an unnecessary addition. After the show, some talk about "fun" and how rock music shouldn't be about politics.

The band walk off the stage at about 10:40 p.m., only to come back for two encores. First came Van Morrison's much-covered "Gloria." The fast-paced, energetic version of the tune has the crowd singing just as much as Smith herself. She and the audience belt out Gloria ("Gee-El-Oh-Are-Eye-Ay!") so many times, the song ends in laughter.

She then speaks a few words and leads the band into the Neil Young cover "Helpless" - requested repeatedly by yours truly during the concert. It's a beautiful rendition of the song, the audience listens, singing along softly. It's a calm, perfect ending to a beautiful experience felt by all.
Wish I could have been there.

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