x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

George Michael show to be biggest yet

Tonight's double bill with the singer Alicia Keys is expected to draw the largest audience for a musical performance in the Emirates so far.

A technician sets up the equipment for the George Michael and Alicia Keys concert at the Zayed Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi tonight.
A technician sets up the equipment for the George Michael and Alicia Keys concert at the Zayed Sports Stadium in Abu Dhabi tonight.

ABU DHABI // It is an unlikely place to wrap up a 25-year musical career that has had little to do with the Middle East. When George Michael takes the stage at Zayed Sports City Stadium tonight to mark National Day, making his Middle East debut before a crowd that will include a circle of his family and friends flown in from the UK, the concert is supposed to be his last. Abu Dhabi was a last-minute addition to his "25 Live" farewell tour that has stretched to 105 shows. Reports in the British press have indicated it was an offer of £1 million (Dh6m) that persuaded Michael to extend his tour by one date.

The 45-year-old singer, a Grammy Award winner who has sold 100 million records and had a dozen number one hits in the UK, including Faith and Father Figure, loves the hot weather. The concert is the first to be held at the stadium since it opened in 1974 as the capital's premier football stadium, with Michael performing for an audience that is expected to be bigger than any other that has gathered to see an artist in the UAE.

"When this stadium was built, it was never going to be for an event like this," said Lee Charteris, operations manager for Flash, the organisers. "There were certainly never meant to be 12,000 people on the pitch like this." It is "an amazing achievement" to have organised something on this scale in such a short time, said Mr Charteris, who has worked in the UK music industry for 30 years. The concert's size and scale, bringing fans from around the world including the UK and Sweden, reflects how far the capital has come since it staged the first such concert for Justin Timberlake one year ago. Mr Charteris said Timberlake was expected to be a "one-off".

"One year ago, nobody would have believed that we'd be into our fifth show and that we'd be doing this on a month by month basis," he said. "The guys here in Abu Dhabi have been great. It's going to be an amazing show and something for Abu Dhabi to be proud of." Security is tight for the show, but no more so than in any other country that Michael has visited, including Ukraine and Russia. "Being in the Middle East has made no difference to our procedure," said Andy Frost, the singer's head of security. "We haven't done anything here which we wouldn't do in any other country, regardless of the fact it's the Middle East. Before we come we assess it to ensure that it's safe and we feel like this is no more risky than anywhere else that we've been since the tour began."

Michael will have at least two costume changes. On hand backstage he has two wardrobe assistants, two hair and make-up artists and a masseur. At midnight a fireworks display will mark the 37th UAE National Day. Michael will do a sound check today with his 12-member band and backing singers, shortly before the opening artist, Alicia Keys, will perform. Keys, a Grammy Award-winning artist from the US who has sold more than 30 million records, also has a worldwide following.

Preparations for the concert have been going on for 10 days, with staff brought in from Australia, the US, Canada and the UK. Personnel include 100 people for production, 60 who came with George's tour team, and 300 for security. Five screens will display a multimillion-dollar video backdrop to the show, the content of which Michael has been part of from start to finish, editing right down to the very end.

There will be double the amount of equipment than at any previous large-scale concert in the capital, such as Christina Aguilera or Bon Jovi. In addition to a 100-metre stage, four companies have contributed the video equipment as Flash could not find one company to provide for the show's visual needs. Some of the show's lighting was shipped in from the UK; 60 tonnes of air freight for the concert has been shipped in three air carriers.

Police have been involved in helping co-ordinate traffic and security at the event, while three ambulance crews will be on site in case of emergency at the stadium, which has never seen crowds on this scale. Player tunnels are being used as access routes for fans while new stairways have been erected. Tickets start at Dh195 and will be available at the venue. mswan@thenational.ae