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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

James Blunt is capable, just not cool at third Dubai Jazz Festival performance

Marmite troubadour James Blunt and US singer Christina Perri open day one of the 13th Dubai Jazz Festival.
James Blunt performs on the first day of Dubai Jazz Festival at the Dubai Media City amphitheatre in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
James Blunt performs on the first day of Dubai Jazz Festival at the Dubai Media City amphitheatre in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

There were many who rejoiced when news broke that, after three years in Festival City, the Dubai Jazz Festival was returning to its old stomping ground in Media City. And then there were those who groaned when they read that the festival – never a purists’ paradise at the best of times – had booked Marmite troubadour James Blunt to perform for a third time in six years. Notably, his opening night was the only show not to sell out regular tickets well in advance. It was a Wednesday to be fair.

Presumably earning some kind of medal for Services to the Dubai Jazz Fest, after previous shows in 2009 and 2011, Blunt arrived in form on the tail-end of a 18-month world tour. However it seems Dubai got a budget version of the gig, with “none of the production, none of the visuals”, from his whacky space-themed Moon Landing show. The whole tour, however, he tells us has been “a rehearsal for Dubai”. A real insert-city-name-here moment.

No one has ever stood at a piano and looked cool – sitting is timeless, but standing bent over an upright is among the least rock n’ roll of postures – yet this is how Blunt begins his set, lurching into Face the Sun, a mildly stomping rocker from his last album, Mood Landing.

But then, James Blunt isn’t cool. When he straps on an electric guitar and hollers “You’re in Dubai baby!” it screams accountant, not rock star. While army training probably helped him leap over the barriers, his crowd-surfing stunt had the air of an embarrassing uncle, not a spontaneous act of artistic passion.

He’s not cool. But he knows his craft well. While there’s not much variation in James Blunt’s repertoire – mid-tempo, guitar-pop ballads tend to dominate – the 41-year-old Brit shrewdly structures his schmaltz, mixing flavours old and new, and fast and slow. His four big hits arrive as artful climaxes. The crowd unites for a mid-set, solo piano take of Goodbye My Lover, the other massive hit from 2004’s breakout LP Back to Bedlam.

And you’ll remember the first one. Before the gig, Blunt quipped that he has to sing You’re Beautiful – once voted the most irritating song of all time – every night because “otherwise people would want their money back”. As it turns out he doesn’t do much singing at all, leaving the chorus for the crowd to gamely chant, while he sways about rocking out on an acoustic guitar.

Stepping off the stage for just a few moments, Blunt returns for an encore of the other two radio anthems – Bonfire Heart and 1973, before fireworks are projected onto the screen behind him – which felt a little cheap given how commonplace the real thing are in the UAE.

“Shukran, Dubai – see you soon,” announces Blunt leaving the stage. At his current rate, we’ll give it two years.

Earlier in the evening Christina Perri performed – an appropriate pairing, with the US singer-songwriter getting her first break supporting “Blunty” on tour in 2012.

Parading the stage in a High School Musical-style white blouse and glittery tights get-up, a hyperactive Perri seemed genuinely overcome with the excitement of being in Dubai (her new “favorite city”).

Her set opened with a solo piano version of breakout hit Jar of Hearts, while her guitarist gamely covers Jason Mraz’s part in duet Distance. Best received were 2013 hit Human, and a surprise cover of Coldplay’s A Sky Full of Stars.

rgarratt@thenational.ae