Live Review: Habibi, Heavenly Bodies, Philadelphia, PA, Nov. 2, 2021

Unwavering in excellence, Habibi beguiled from start to finish at Johnny Brenda’s, with its signature blend of girl-group harmonies, psychedelic surf/garage rock and Middle Eastern textures moving us to shake and shimmy in our seats or stand up and dance.

Drawing from their two most recent singles as well as 2020’s lovely Anywhere But Here (with highlights including “Bad News,” “Come My Habibi” and “Hate Everyone But You”) and 2013’s self-titled debut (including “Sweetest Talk” and “Detroit Baby”), Habibi made rocking out sound effortless, almost glamorous. A pair of well-chosen covers, Kleenex’s new-wavy “Nice” and the Savages’ pointed “The World Ain’t Round, It’s Square,” felt of a piece with Habibi’s originals.

It was only between songs, when singer Rahill Jamalifard alluded to all that the band had dealt with throughout the day to make it to the show, that it became clear how what seemed effortless took more effort than we could imagine. Leaving New York, never easy, took far longer during the marathon; the 90-mile drive to Philadelphia stretched to five hours, during which their van broke down. Drummer Karen Isabel unexpectedly had to borrow the opening band’s kit, guitarist Leah Beth Fishman suffered a splinter and, as a segue from “Persepolis” to “Born Too Late,” Jamalifard confided that she’d lost her grandmother.

Despite it all, Habibi played with the joy and tenderness that comes from accepting that the brief time we spend with one another is marked by neither pure sorrow nor triumph, but holding both in our hearts at the same time—and holding space for other people’s own intertwined sorrows and triumphs, regardless if they choose to share them with us.

Heavenly Bodies’ opening set slowly built from a minimalist assembly of sound to full-on rock roar. One long, seamless instrumental, it was deftly calibrated to clear out mental detritus and reset the brain for another full-tilt week.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich