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Even Roman theaters get the Blues
“I’m always in trouble with a woman,” said Sugaray Rayford, “that’s why I sing the Blues.”
“I’m always in trouble with a woman,” said Sugaray Rayford, “that’s why I sing the Blues.”
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ZOUK MIKHAEL, Lebanon: “I’m always in trouble with a woman,” said Sugaray Rayford, adding “that’s why I sing the Blues.”

Based on the performance he belted out to raise the curtain on the eighth Zouk Mikhael International Festival Tuesday evening, the vocalist of The Mannish Boys Blues band must have a great deal of woman trouble nowadays.

This year’s festival opened with its annual Blues Night, featuring the “The California All Star Blues Revue” – a concert that saw The Mannish Boys provide the musical engine of the evening, with other performers joining them over the course of the show.

For almost two hours, this assortment of bluesmen imbued the Roman-style amphitheater with blues and R&B.

The Mannish Boys dedicates itself, the festival suggests, to reviving the spirit of “such legendary revues as the Johnny Otis Show [and] the Ike Turner Revue.”

This concert gathered “the finest blues musicians from California,” harmonica-player and vocalist Randy Chortkoff said by way of introduction.

Spectators got true American entertainment thanks to Sugaray Rayford, veteran vocalist Finis Tasby, outstanding guitarists Kid Ramos and Kirk Fletcher, to name a sample of the talent that trod the boards.

The theater stage had no unnecessary props. The musicians were kept company by their instruments and nothing more. The drawl of blues flooded the amphitheater, a tide that transported the concert-goers to the U.S. for one exceptional night.

Sugaray is a natural entertainer and he was natural for the entire evening. Whether addressing the audience, dancing to his band member’s sounds or leaping off stage to mingle with spectators on the front rows, he pulled his audience into the festive spirit.

His coarse voice made some of the women in the audience wail, albeit in a gentile fashion. Some of the tunes he delivered in a conversational, storytelling manner, undulating with the slow rhythms of his companions’ guitar and bass riffs.

The Mannish Boys have a populist shtick. At one point in the show Sugaray asked whether Lebanese folks were the kind of people who liked to dance. The provocation triggered a furor of movement in the crowd, with most of the listeners approaching the stage to cut a rug.

In a snap, the amphitheater was transformed into become something like a sing-along, with no distinction between performers and spectators. Sugaray himself descended from the stage several times to have a scuff with his fans.

Veteran vocalist Finis Tasby eventually joined the band on stage. Although of an older generation than The Mannish Boys, he retained his groove throughout. Unlike the hyperactive Sugaray’s, Tasby was mostly motionless, preferring to commune with the music rather than the audience.

Near the end of the concert, U.S. guitarist Otis Grand also joined The Mannish Boys.

Zouk Mikael’s summer festival may be unique in its friendly intimacy. Audience members never feel they’re breeching decorum if they clamber up on stage to dance, let alone in the aisles. It’s normal here to talk with the performers and to dance with them.

At one point an anonymous man stood in for Otis Grand on the guitar for a few minutes. At another, a woman invited Sugaray to dance. The Mannish Boys demonstrated that a concert should be enjoyed actively, not to be absorbed, passively, while sitting still.

The Zouk Mikhael International Festival continues on July 14 with a performance by Lebanese chanteuse Carole Samaha. For more information, please call 01-999-666 or visit the website www.zoukmikaelfestival.org/

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 12, 2012, on page 16.
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