x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Some fine tuning

Dubai Sound City certainly had its failings but it still attracted a large number of people eager to see the festival return next year with an even bigger line-up.

"It's been a mammoth task and things do fall through," said David Pichilingi, the co-founder of Dubai Sound City, "but we've rewritten the rule book by doing a three-day festival here. Nobody else has ever attempted to do that on a multi-stage site."

The music industry showcase took place across three days and three sweltering nights at seven venues throughout the city. The organisers New Dawn, known for putting on grass-roots events and club nights in Dubai, promised an ambitious 78 bands, artists and DJs would rock the festival, aimed at helping the city to become a regular fixture on the live circuit. Nostalgia artists such as Human League and Happy Mondays were billed next to trendier names such as Doves, The Wombats and The Futureheads - few of which had ever toured the region before.

But the organisers were forced to cancel Saturday night's performance by the headliner Echo and the Bunnymen, just one day after another top act, De La Soul, pulled out at the last minute. The next day, the Danish rap group Outlandish also failed to appear (totalling five cancellations over the weekend) and an embarrassingly small crowd turned out to see the replacement headliners Super Furry Animals close the event.

So how can Pichilingi, who also runs Dubai Sound City's sister festival, Liverpool Sound City, remain so optimistic? "The response has been hugely positive," he said. "There were between five and six thousand people here on Friday and there's a great willingness for people who want to get on board next year." Like the Liverpool event, Dubai Sound City tries to make money in a number of different ways. As well as selling concert tickets to the public, organisers also hope to reap advertising revenue from area sponsors, partner with local brands and agencies and sell high-price tickets to music industry delegates attending the festival's series of conferences.

Many said that these events - focusing on the music industry's future and taking place at Emirates Towers - were an immense success. Not only were the panel discussions and keynote speeches well attended, but business deals took place and many delegates want to return in 2010. Pichilingi also said that by the end of the festival's first day, organisers had proved to potential future advertisers and partners that they were not only able to make an event such as this happen, but also draw a crowd, further increasing the chances of a follow-up festival.

Although close to full capacity during Friday night during performances by the indie bands Ocean Colour Scene and Happy Mondays (and suitably busy the previous evening, too), the festival's main event at Irish Village received some criticism. As well as the cancellations, few of the performances took place when advertised. A few of the artists themselves raised concerns about organisation. Before the festival even started there was the problem of the slightly honky line-up, with an extreme Northern England bias, and many felt the weekend ticket price was simply too expensive.

Few complained about the actual venue, however, as the tour manager of rock band The Automatic wrote on Twitter (as Tristanisdead): "The Automatic smashed it at Sound City last night. Gigs surrounded by palm trees rock!" Not only did the venue offer all of the necessary amenities and almost no queuing time, but most people agreed it was an incredibly pleasant place to watch live music. Filled with grassy verges, plants and places to sit, it offered plenty of unobstructed views of the stage.

Although most of the bands appearing at the event had never played in the Middle East before, they all seemed enthusiastic to be in Dubai and supportive of the festival's aims. "It's not just about if the bands get anything out of it, but about if the area will," says Huw "Bunf" Bunford, the guitarist for the Welsh rockers Super Furry Animals, who were invited to Dubai after playing the Liverpool event. "I would imagine this festival will just get bigger and bigger."

Although some of the bands may have been forced to strip their productions somewhat for the long-distance flight, none scrimped where it mattered and there were a large number of impressive live performances. The anthemic rockers Doves delivered a thunderous performance on opening night after the impossibly energetic Futureheads warmed up the crowd. When the 1980s electro pioneers Human League arrived, the crowd was treated to a classic set packed with hits such as Don't You Want Me and Mirror Man. Some, however, felt it was a mistake for the band to play after Doves, whose signature tune, There Goes the Fear, received the widest applause of the night.

At the festival's peak on Friday, there was a visible cloud of steam rising from the packed venue, particularly during the set by Happy Mondays. The frontman Shaun Ryder took to the stage well after midnight in dark glasses and a leather jacket, but the group's energetic dancer Bez was nowhere in sight. Organisers later said the infamous party-loving performer decided not to attend the event for personal reasons, not because he was forbidden from leaving Britain, as Ryder had joked from the stage. Despite calls from the audience of "where's Bez?" the band succeeded in whipping up a party atmosphere, particularly with its massive hit Step On.

Although many believed Saturday offered the greatest variety of artists, the festival seemed to have burnt out by the final day. By midafternoon there were only a few hundred fans at the venue, prompting artists such as the world music star Nitin Sawhney to urge seated fans to walk down to the stage. The situation improved slightly by the time the Liverpool band The Wombats arrived, however. The trio seemed to connect with the crowd more than any other band of the weekend and got the audience bouncing enthusiastically with hits such as Moving to New York and Let's Dance to Joy Division.

Super Furry Animals, Wales' most charismatic band, played a stunning set of old and new material in lieu of Echo and the Bunnymen. The rockers mixed disparate styles and constantly toyed with the crowd by holding up signs reading "Applause!", "Woah!" and "The End". Unfortunately, the late-night performance, which included the classics Demons and Rings Around the World, was only witnessed by a few hundred fans - an offence for which the festival's organisers rather than the band were mostly responsible.

Despite its failings, the most striking thing about Dubai Sound City was the number of people who were keen to see the festival succeed and return for a second year with a more comprehensive line-up of talent. Did the organisers pull it off? Just about. ogood@thenational.ae