x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Where the rubber meets the road: The Gulf Bike Festival

The Gulf Bike Festival in Dubai plays host to Nickelback and others but if you are looking something bit more staid, there's always a bi-cultural arts affair in the capital.

Some music is transcendent: you hear it and can hardly believe it came from our own humdrum world. Stick on Bowie's Heroes. If it doesn't make you feel like you're looking down on history through the eyes of a Wim Wenders angel, your stereo is broken. Other stuff bears the smudgy fingerprints of its creation. You struggle to hear the music over the din caused by your awareness of its circumstances. You know how it was done, what tools were used and what the musicians had to do to them; you clock the calculations and economies of effort, the rote elements and opportunistic novelties and lyrics fresh from the rhyming dictionary; you hear the meter ticking in the rented studio as the bass player cues up for his 30th take. You feel the miles of asphalt between gigs, mid-afternoon alarm calls in airport hotels and service station pasties that have been repeating since Trondheim. The stench of the road crew hangs heavy over your speakers. You hear not music but music business.

That's what Status Quo are like: rocking all over the world and letting you feel every step. This isn't altogether a complaint. A big part of the Quo's appeal over the past five decades has been just that sense of honest toil, of dogged loyalty to an unpretentious formula, which was refined by their endless touring - where the rubber of creative ambition meets the road of, well, the road. Their early records were raucous, near-psychedelic garage rock. Think of that swirl of phased guitar that opens Pictures of Matchstick Men. It phased right out of their playbook, to be replaced by the marching boogie that has been their business since the 1970s. It did the job, if the job is shifting 118 million units. Well, whatever you want, as the boys in the band like to say. And so it seems fitting that Status Quo should bring their wagon train to a celebration of the open road. They're playing at the Gulf Bike Festival this week, where the chug of Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt's twin Telecasters will have to compete with the roar of two-stroke engines.


They're joined by a band that figures, in some respects, as their spiritual heirs. The Canadian rockers Nickelback have, like the Quo, sold an awful lot of records. They have a formula of their own, or at least a different formula to Parfitt and Rossi. Nickelback trade in what amounts to grunge, which means they should be excellently placed to ride the 1990s revival due this decade. Their signifiers, like those of the older outfit, are all about grit and authenticity: chunky guitar riffs, distressed denim, lyrics about life in a band. Proper rock, in other words, compelled by a lack of wit to tell it like it really is. They're Pearl Jam without the surfer spirituality, Stiltskin without the Levis ad. Three chords and the disappointing truth.

This tendency reaches its zenith on their by now traditional countryish numbers. Tracks such as Rockstar or See You at the Show pair gilt-edged, muscled-up Mutt Lange rock with lyrics of appalling and reptilian candour. See You at the Show invites an unnamed "you" (female by implication) to join the band on their tour bus, go out on the town and enjoy preferential treatment from night club bouncers. Step this way, ladies...

Meanwhile Rockstar gloats at the benefits that accrue to bands such as Nickelback - everything from "a brand new house on an episode of Cribs" and "a big black jet with a bedroom in it" to "washed up singers writing all my songs / Lip-sync 'em every night so I don't get 'em wrong". It's hollow stuff, and exultantly so: singing songs to get rich to sing songs about being rich. A more incisive lyricist could have added the kiss-off: "And we don't care" but perhaps it never occurred to them that they might.


If that doesn't appeal, the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation has something a little more wholesome. Orient Meets Occident is billed as a "cultural dialogue initiative", but might be more succinctly described as an exhibition. Artists from the Arab world, including the UAE's Karima al Shomely, are presenting work alongside western colleagues and taking part in daily discussions. There will also be student workshops to ensure that the enterprise is kept aloft on currents of youthful idealism.

* Ed Lake @brief head:Nickelback @brief body:Friday, Gulf Bike Festival, Festival City, Dubai. @brief head:Status Quo @brief body:February 6, Gulf Bike Festival, Festival City, Dubai. @brief head:Orient Meets Occident @brief body:Tuesday through February 8, Armed Forces Officers Club, Abu Dhabi.