As the ninth Abu Dhabi GP gets under way, we look at how big names such as Prince, Aerosmith, Jay-Z and Rihanna have helped to get the UAE off the grid and on to the world stage
How F1 has blown the UAE music scene wide open
When Beyoncé stepped on to the stage at the strikingly angular, brand new Yas Arena – later dubbed du Arena – on October 29, 2009, to inaugurate the very first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the UAE’s entertainment industry looked nothing like it does today.
The following morning, officially competing Formula 1 cars would hit the tarmac on Yas Island for the first time, starting the ignition on a historic three-day race weekend – with each day’s track drama capped with another massive concert – Jamiroquai, Kings of Leon and Aerosmith appearing on consecutive evenings.
To see four international acts of such stature, over four days in the UAE, would have been unimaginable just a decade ago – yet soon the annual blockbuster bandwagon of races, concerts and parties became embedded at the heart of the emirate’s social calendar.
For many, the highlight remains the Yasalam After-Race Concerts, which over the past eight years have welcomed a staggering list of headliners, including Prince, Paul McCartney, Jay-Z and Rihanna. Last night, the juggernaut kicked off again, with Calvin Harris, Mumford & Sons, Pink, and late addition J Cole – who stepped in for tonight following a sudden cancellation by Kendrick Lamar – all set to perform over successive nights.
Nowadays, it is easy to take such a wealth of A-list talent for granted – and easy to forget that when the F1 first landed on our shores, the Emirates’s live music scene was almost unidentifiable with what we expect today. In the capital, there was no big, annual music festival – nor any Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi – and certainly no other big-name concerts on Yas Island – because it hadn’t been built yet. What headline-grabbing gigs there had been were generally makeshift affairs, often hosted in the grounds of Emirates Palace – which welcomed the likes of Justin Timberlake, Elton John, Coldplay and Bon Jovi between 2007 and 2009 – lacking anywhere near the technical sophistication of du Arena’s state-of-the-art audio-visual technology.
Because as well as bringing inconceivably star-studded bills to the UAE, the F1 provided the emirate’s first purpose-built, world-class, arena-sized performance venue – which has since been used year-round for one-off concert spectacles, hosting crowds of up to 35,000.
It’s not clear if Abu Dhabi would have tempted the likes of Madonna, Metallica, Kanye West or The Rolling Stones for stops on their world tours without du Arena’s tech specs – but it is certain they would never have sounded, or looked, so good.
Down the road in Dubai, circa 2009, things also looked very different. There was no controversy-blighted Autism Rocks Arena. No Meydan. No modern Sevens Stadium (it originally opened in November, 2008).
The game-changing Sandance festival was yet to be born and die. Outdoor superclubs Zero Gravity, White Dubai, Base Dubai, et al – which fly in A-list DJ and hip-hop names weekly – were yet to be dreamed up by cash-hungry promoters.
What gigs took place were generally hosted at imperfect golf clubs or small, unideal venues like the now-defunct Chi@The Lodge and Alpha, at Le Méridien Dubai Hotel. A survivor is found in The Irish Village – which was recently forced to up its game, covering the neighbouring lake area to create a beefed-up new venue – and the neighbouring Dubai Tennis Stadium, catering for modest crowds of around 5,000.
There were bigger one-off gigs, too, but nowhere near as many as we see today. Rock fans were particularly well catered for with the annual Desert Rock Festival – which welcomed the likes of Robert Plant, Velvet Revolver, Iron Maiden and Muse between 2004 and 2009. Often hotly-hyped festivals crashed and burned into calamity. Like the one-off organisational mishap that was 2003’s Gig on the Green – those present recall seeing Suede play one of their final sets before a seven-year hiatus in the early hours, to a smattering of hangers-ons.
At 2009’s multi-venue Sound City – hosted just a week after the first F1 – at least five headliners failed to show, but the three-day festival carried on regardless. That kind of thing wouldn’t be tolerated for much longer.
Popular myth holds that the tides changed with Robbie Williams’s remarkable appearance in front of 16,000 fans at Nad Al Sheba. In truth, bigger names had been passing through for more than a decade already – according to reports, legends including Chuck Berry, James Brown and Sting all played Dubai in the 1990s – but with nothing like the clockwork consistency, or efficiency, of Yasalam’s offerings. Although here a hearty head-nod must be afforded to the Dubai International Jazz Festival which, after founding as a purists’ affair in 2003, slowly edged into poppier names and would welcome John Legend, Kool & the Gang, ELO and Toto before the F1 had waved a single chequered flag.
Yet nothing that came before would or could compete with the Beyoncé-led quadruple bill of the first Grand Prix, which still rates as one of the strongest F1 weekends to date. It dazzled audiences jaded by scarce and erratic gigs, no shows and late starts. It forced competing promoters to raise their game and international tour managers to bolt upright and take note, putting the UAE on the global entertainment map. The F1’s After-Race offerings undoubtedly helped to fuel the seismic growth of the UAE’s live music industry.
Whether the programmers knew it or not then, this line-up also set many trends which were to define the post-race musical mood. Following from Beyoncé’s historic debut, the opening night – which became a Friday when the format slimmed down to a three-night affair from 2010 – has traditionally been filled by a contemporary solo superstar with enough regular radio airplay to strike a chord of recognition with even the most casual concertgoer.
Kanye West, Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue all performed on Friday in consecutive years, before Bey’s husband Jay-Z followed onto the stage in 2013, while endearing Latin sensation Enrique Iglesias won over even the agnostics in 2015.
Performing at the height of their Sex on Fire-inspired fame in 2009, Kings of Leon also set a tradition for a guitar-centric Saturday night, which in succeeding years welcomed Linkin Park – whose frontman Chester Bennington was tragically found hanged in July – and a double-bill of Incubus and The Cult in 2011.
The hard-rocking Saturday continued with Nickleback and Muse, in 2012 and 2013 respectively, before Florence and the Machine appeared in 2015, fresh from headlining Glastonbury. Both these traditions were briefly torn up in 2014 with a brave embrace of the moment, which at the height of the EDM boom invited a DJ into the After-Race fold for the first time, with Armin van Buuren performing on the Friday, while Pharrell – then the hottest ticket in town, riding in the slipstream of global super-smashes Happy and Blurred Lines – performed an illness-blighted set on the Saturday.
The biggest head-scratcher for programmers has undoubtedly been the closing Sunday night, which, bringing the curtain down on the whole weekend, leaves a lasting taste in the mouth. Their answer has generally been to blow the budget and call on an undisputed musical legend to play out as the credits roll.
Despite their well-earned reputation as “America’s greatest rock‘n’roll band”, Aerosmith’s curtain-closing set in 2009 was shot out of the water by an epic, folkloric, four-encore show the next year from the late, great Prince (the number of weary petrolheads kicking themselves today for splitting early for the taxi queue is said to clock into the thousands). Only a former Beatle would do after that, with Paul McCartney whipping out ample hey-day hits one year later, and more 1960s legends appearing in 2014, when The Who kicked off their 50th anniversary tour right here in Abu Dhabi – in suitably raw, feedback-drenched form.
While lacking the fabled decades of experience of those described above, we’ll hand an honorary “legend” badge to the bestselling act of the 2000-09 decade, Eminem, who closed the 2012 weekend.
Because of their role in the mid-1990s Britpop war, Blur, who brought the curtain down in 2015, also deserve a place in the club – although their legacy was not necessarily recognised by the tempered welcome of Abu Dhabi’s international crowd – while 2013’s closing act Depeche Mode also proved an acquired taste for some.
The years 2013 to 2015 also welcomed an all-star bill of Arabic talent on the pre-race Thursday night – a tradition which was discontinued last year when, at the last moment, Pitbull was announced for the Thursday night, prompting another revamp of the familiar form. Next came a return to electronic sounds with The Chemical Brothers on Friday. If there was a legend on the bill, it was Saturday’s headliner Lionel Richie, before an artist who will be regarded as a legend very soon – Rihanna – tore up the stage with a phenomenal closing night.
This year’s line-up is equally eclectic, covering each of modern music’s most popular forms, catering to fans of pop (Pink), rock (Mumford & Sons), hip-hop (J Cole) and EDM (Calvin Harris) alike. As the UAE’s music scene evolves firmly into adolescence, the F1’s After-Race Concerts continue to take pole position.
The Yasalam After-Race Concerts take place at du Arena, Yas Island, tonight to Sunday and are open to race-day ticket holders only. For packages, see www.yasmarinacircuit.com