x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The question is: who to choose?

You can cut the carpet next weekend with contemporary bands or take a stroll through an intellectual investigation of the far reaches of 1001 Arabian Nights.


Rarely have Dubaians faced a dilemma like it. At the Palladium this Thursday, the Backstreet Boys. At Chi, Shaggy. And at the Irish Village, those eerie Scots doppelgangers The Proclaimers. For some it will seem an embarrassment of riches, for others a Hobson's choice. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you must pick one. How to decide? All three acts are of course, in their different ways, survivors. Consider pop-reggae's clown prince, Shaggy. He does a good impression of being the laziest man in music but nonchalantly churns out an album of new material every two or three years. He has the opportunistic, mugging air of a one-hit wonder, but managed to channel that into at least four indelible singles whose residuals alone no doubt keep him very comfortably to this day. After nearly two decades in the business he's still a plausible force in the charts. Can Chaka Demus say as much? In short, Shaggy is one of the Earth's happy souls. It's traditional in some cultures to hold that good fortune breeds good fortune; subscribers to this theory will be queuing to touch the hem of his garment. The rest of the crowd will just like impersonating his growly voice. An odd mix, to be sure, but a festive one.


Then there are the Backstreet Boys, one of the many 1990s boy bands to regroup in the present century, counting on the nostalgia and financial independence of their once-pubescent fans to keep them out of the workhouse. Their absence was a relatively brief one - vanishing after 2000s Black and Blue and returning in diminished numbers for 2005's mendaciously titled Never Gone. This gives them an edge over, for example, New Kids on the Block, who returned to the limelight after 12 years away looking like five variations on Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately, the new Backstreet material is a weak brew. At their historic best they sounded like Prince with the scary bits left out. Now they do generic mid-1990s Europop. And, of course, they've become a bunch of balding, thirtysomething blokes who can't really dance. Unless you still have a wardrobe full of rolled-up Nick Carter posters you can't bear to part with, there are more enticing options.


For example, the Proclaimers. On the face of it, their claim to continued relevance is even shakier than that of the Backstreet Boys. It rests on just two songs, Letter from America and I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles), from 1987 and 1988 respectively. The brothers Reid look like a novelty act, a couple of Hank Marvin clones in hiking boots. And yet... those two songs are as dumbly effective as anything in pop: chunky, striding singalongs full of bluster and romance. There's something weirdly ever-fresh about them.

I happen to have a Surecut Kids remix of I'm Gonna Be that reimagines it as a Baltimore club track: lots of jerky editing and a Lyn Collins breakbeat. It's cute at first, but after a while you just wish they'd play the thing straight through. Rare indeed is the track that isn't improved by that Lyn Collins drum line. What's more, their live show has a conversion rate to match the old dust-bowl tent revivals. That "proclaimer" tag is no idle boast. In conclusion, I know which I'd go for. (Full disclosure: Craig and Charlie Reid are from the tiny village of Auchtermuchty, the nearest thing I have to an ancestral seat. But I've never been there and never met them. For all I know, the townsfolk might heartily detest them - downcast eyes in the post office, "Keep walkin', ye bampots, and retun tae sender," that sort of thing.)

For a more cerebral alternative, there's what promises to be a fascinating literary conference at NYU Abu Dhabi this week. The subject is the influence of the great Arabic story-cycle the 1001 Nights on international culture, and the ever-stimulating folklore expert Marina Warner will be among the academic eminences on hand to weigh the case. Also pitching in are the novelists Gamal al-Ghitani, Elias Khoury and Alia Yunis, the theatre director Tim Supple and the filmmaker Nacer Khemir, and that's just for starters. There should be a fascinating range of perspectives. A few days ago Marina Warner chatted to me about her own view of the Nights' long shadow and you can read what she said in Arts & Life this week. But to whet your appetite, ask yourself this: in how many pre 18th-century European fairy tales do people get to fly around? How did Voltaire manage both to ridicule and radicalise the strange logic of Middle Eastern fables? And why might you find a picture of a camel at a traditional Japanese wedding? If such questions pique your interest, I know of a cave not far from here that's absolutely bursting with them.

And finally, if you are looking for laughs, head to the Madinat Arena in Dubai on Saturday for an evening with Al Murray, Perrier Award winner and Pub Landlord extraordinaire.