6/9/16 – Middle East Downstairs

“We’re fond of this place” Hamed Sinno, lead singer of Mashrou Leila, told the sold-out crowd as he reminisced about the band’s last performance at The Middle East Downstairs. “You guys have big shoes to… match purses with!”

Sinno, the mustachioed bandleader of Lebanese alternative rock act Mashrou Leila, has drawn quite a number of Freddie Mercury comparisons – and not just for his facial hair. Sinno’s vibrato-filled, thick vocals have an operatic sound similar to Mercury’s. Certainly, his outfit didn’t help: a sleeveless gym shirt, a sequined wristband, and a black leather armband identical to those worn by Queen’s lead singer.

But the getup wasn’t entirely planned; “I’m supposed to have done my laundry, but I’m generally a bit of a mess,” he confessed. “Which is why I’m wearing my gym T-shirt. So if my nipple makes an appearance or two tonight, I’m sorry,” he said as the crowd chuckled. This sort of humor peppered the set, which simultaneously felt like a big fat Greek wedding (or Lebanese, or Armenian, or otherwise) and an act of political defiance.

Sinno and violinist Haig Papazian were a visual representation of that contrast: the bearded Papazian stood stiff and stoic, his confident, matter-of-fact bow strokes strangely serious next to Sinno, who was a dance diva. On “Marrikh” he shielded his eyes from an imaginary sun; on a song about a shuttered gay club, “Tayf (Ghost),” he pinwheeled his arms; and as he stretched his hands into the air on “Ashabi” his fingertips scraped the low ceiling of the Middle East.

For a non-Arabic speaker, themes like political assassination, materialism, immigration, and sexuality hide behind a veil of upbeat electro-pop and folk rock. Sometimes, Sinno sang out his stories and commentary through a mini megaphone – which was just as much a tool for creating audio effects as it was a symbol for Mashrou Leila’s political commentary and criticism of Lebanese society.

Fortunately, Sinno was constantly offering up explanations and stories that informed the audience of the tragic realities that dance-y tracks spoke of. In the case of “Maghawir,” it’s about “someone shooting someone else at a club.” The song was riddled with minor notes, a flash of the middle finger, and gun-shaped hand gestures. Performed with a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, that night’s rendition had quite a different feel than the one for NPR’s Tiny Desk, performed in response to the tragedy in Orlando just a few days after their Boston show.

The set itself borrowed from the band’s entire discography: everything from “Fasateen,” which proved to be a crowd sing-along and was one of the first songs they wrote together, to the acoustic sounds of “Abdo” off their 2013 release (“This one is about something typical in Beirut which is people selling stuff on trolleys in the street. It’s about a flower salesman called Abdo.”) to “Bint Elkhandaq” from the latest album, which tells the story of a friend who learned, “as hard as it is to be a woman in Beirut, it’s just as hard to be brown in the West.”

The crowd was similarly eclectic: a dozen or so khaki-outfitted business people, bushy-browed Middle Easterners, and members of the LBTQ community, with scarves or a string of pearls draped around their neck. The mix seemed appropriate considering Beirut, Mashrou Leila’s hometown, is a melting pot of the Middle East and known as the cosmopolitan center of queer Arab life.

As the night came to a close, the pensive “Shim el Yasmine” encouraged the front rows to stand with their arms over their neighbor’s shoulders as they slowly swayed to the music. But Mashrou Leila was not going to fade out with the twinkling of the piano – that was certain, considering the amount of sweat shed by the smiling Sinno and crew. Instead, the band invited the crowd to one last wild dance as Sinno howled over the driving drum beats of “Taxi.”

“You guys sure there aren’t more Lebanese people in the audience? You guys are fucking loud!” Sinno said to the cheering crowd.

Mashrou Leila: A Big Fat Lebanese Wedding (Party)
PROS
  • Back stories for songs and funny banter
  • Balance of upbeat dance songs and slower, folk numbers
  • Eclectic setlist
CONS
  • Band members could have matched Sinno's energy
8.8Overall Score

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