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French Version

Massive Attack keeps Baalbek "Safe From Harm"

Festival sees weekend of musical pioneers. Iconic British trip-hop group brings its particular brand of agit-pop to the Temple of Jupiter

Daddy G, aka Grant Marshall and one of the four founding members of British electro-hop group Massive Attack, is hunched over hands on his knees backstage beneath the towering Roman pillars of Baalbek's Temple of Jupiter.

It is Sunday night around 11pm and he has just finished performing to one of the biggest crowds the Baalbek Festival has ever seen. He literally cannot believe where he is standing. His tall frame and short black dreadlocks cast a shadow across the ancient stone from the stage lights at the other end of the temple as I talk to him.

"What an incredible place. It is amazing to be here," he says in a soft rumbling Bristol accent that is far removed than the heavy dubbed out rap that he mumbles into the microphone on stage.

3D aka Robert Del Naja, the other founding member who is still with the group - both Tricky who has gained fame in his own right and Andrew "Mushroom" Vowles had both departed by the time of the band's fourth album in 1998 - is also humbled to be in the ancient ruins: "Thank you so much for having us here. It is a great privilege to be here. We are so happy to be here," he told the assembled masses on more than one occasion.

And for the most of the night those very same masses responded with screams and shouts latching on to the happiness of 3D and sending it right back at him. Perhaps this was because this gig was the first time such a hugely popular band - one which grew out of a Jamaica-style sound system named Wild Bunch in the 1980s to become the iconic group of the 1990s - had ever come to Lebanon, had ever indeed come to the Middle East, and a captive Lebanese generation starved of access to such live shows through much of the last 15 post-war years needed to express their gratitude. There was a feeling of collective release under the stars this evening.

For the show, exquisite in its execution and hugely professional, felt both short (though the 90-odd minutes Massive Attack were on stage is the standard length for a band on the international tour circuit) and hugely, well, downbeat.

It stopped no one from having a good time. From where I was nodding my head in the pit at the front of the stage, it took about a half-hour for the whole of the Baalbek crowd to get to its feet and once there the push of the people desperate to get to the front was an unstoppable force.

With a flashing screen of neon lights for background and swirls of smoke and dry ice, the band consisting of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, guitarist and 3D controlling all from a sampler, began the show with "Angel" and the ageless falsetto of reggae legend and longtime Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy. As the heavy, throbbing bassline dropped it felt as if the night would be one of dark, urban dislocation - which is what Massive Attack have always expressed so well through their music.

And we get more of it on the second track, "Rising Son," when we see Daddy G appear to rap followed by "Black Milk," where guest guitarist Dot Alison takes the mike. "Antistar" with 3D rapping follows but it was with the next two crowd-pleasing songs that the night came alive.

Andy, dreadlocks tied back behind his head, returned to sing "Spying Glass," which is heavy with distorted guitars full soundclash style, and then came "Karmacoma" with both Daddy G and 3D front stage to blast out the tune with the infectious sample as the crowd screamed.

It is slightly telling that we really get going to the tunes of Massive Attack's classic 1990 album "Blue Lines" and those from the second album - 1994's "Protection" - rather than the relatively tuneless songs from the band's last two albums - 1998's "Mezzanine" which was a huge commercial success and 2003's "100th Window" it's rather lacklustre follow up. The tracks from the latter are simply less interesting and more spatial - not condusive for a good live show.

So it is on the early tracks then that we feel the genius of Massive Attack - their innovation, their hypnotic sound both darkly sensual and cinematic; hip-hop ryhthms, soulful melodies, dub grooves and killer samples. This was Massive Attack at their best, it was Massive Attack when they had the benefit of powerful vocalist Shara Nelson, the depressive darkness of Tricky, and the vibe of Mushroom; when they featured the talent of fellow Bristol singer Nicolette and Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn. Even on "Mezzanine" collaborations with the class act of former Cocteau Twins' vocalist Elizabeth Fraser hit the spot.

But Sunday night, lacking the talent of these artists it was always the untouchable Andy, and at moments vocalist Hazel Fernandez who stepped in to make the show. The three most powerful songs were "Safe From Harm," "Hymn of the Big Wheel," and the deeply accomplished "Unfinished Sympathy" all from "Blue Lines," performed by Andy and Fernadez. Andy introduced "Big Wheel" with, "This is for all you conscious people who made it out to Baalbek tonight," in his Jamaican patois and his incomparable voice glides effortlessy through the slow pulsing track.

Disappointingly, Allison absolutey killed "Mezzanine's" best track, "Teardrop," failing to hit any of the notes in the most painful rendition of the night. There is none of the otherworldliness of the album track here.

But how overwhelming to hear "Safe From Harm" which 3D preceded with a comment apologizing for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his actions in Iraq and then performed as the names and ages of Iraqi children killed in the recent conflict flash over the light screen behind the band. Always hugely anti-war 3D is known for taking out adverts in the music press against the conflict and was instrumental in organizing the "Don't Attack Iraq" campaign in the UK.

Massive Attack at Baalbek was the most professional show I have seen this summer in Lebanon. The sound was good, the necessary bass blasting, though overall it could have been turned up just a little. 3D directed all from the front and the band joined the dots on all the numbers simply and easily. The classic songs were blissful and the buzz in the audience was palpable. A success then for the Baalbek Festival and a step in the right direction - pushing a brand of fairly difficult to define modern electronic music in the country that will do their credibility as an overarching festival no shortage of good.

Friday night in Baalbek's Temple of Bacchus saw a very different gig grace the prestigious festival but one from no less of a pioneer as Massive Attack in his own particular genre of music.

New York alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean at 72, an innovator of post-Bird bebop and contemporary of Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Ornette Coleman, performed an intimate show of eclectic free-flowing jazz to a happily responsive crowd.

Last year legendary jazz pianist Ahmed Jamal played a show in the same venue - the DVD recording of that show has just been released in local record stores - and McLean followed on the success of Jamal's show with an equally accomplished journey in 2004.

Performing six original compositions from himself and his son and tenor sax player Rene, and one improvisational gem in Thelonius Monk's "Round Midnight," McLean humbly blew his horn and demonstrated all the clipped phrasing and tripping on the tune that he is known for.

This show was a jumping one: There was no straight ahead jazz to be found. Rene McLean bounced off his dad and dueted brilliantly throughout. As much emphasis was placed on McLean's pianist and drummer as on himself - it was very much a group effort. Alan Palmer on the ivories was springing away heavily punching the keys and driving many of the compositions. On his own track "Reparation" the young pianist (who like Nat Reeves on double bass and Eric McPhearson on drums have all come through McLean's community jazz schooling program) demonstrated a depth of talent and much influence from McLean. This was a funky piece of bop.

The opening track of the night McLean's "Rhythm of the Earth" is a dark powerful and brooding meditation reminiscent of Pharoah Sanders. McLean's alto sax is as fresh as ever and Rene's tenor powerfully blown. The two of them almost manage to break space apart. Tracks such as "Destiny's Romance" and "Rights of Passage" by the younger McLean show that this father and son pairing are all about composition, traveling and mysticism. It is some of the most exciting sound to come out of the jazz field today. At the end of the gig, packing his gear under the stars Jackie McLean told me that there was nothing like playing in this venue, " It's spiritual and beautiful." Just like his music.

Beirut,27July2004
Ramsay Short
The Daily Star


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