Festival Report: Dubai Jazz Festival, 2019
This year’s event featured headlining performances by Snow Patrol, Jamiroquai and Alicia Keys
Dubai Jazz Festival, the 17th edition of which was headlined by Irish rock band Snow Patrol, English funk/acid jazz outfit Jamiroquai and American singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, is among the UAE’s longest-running live music events. Equally long running is the joke that there isn’t much jazz at the festival, which in recent times has hosted such legendary acts as Santana, Sting, Duran Duran and Mariah Carey and also Latin pop superstars Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin.
Because the lineup is of a certain vintage, the festival, the 2019 instalment of which was held between February 20th and 22nd, attracts an equally mature audience. They’re the parents of the kids who attended the electronic and pop music-focused RedFest DXB, organized by the same promoters Done Events, the previous weekend.
The Dubai Jazz Festival, then, is kind of like Mumbai’s Mahindra Blues Festival, if the roster featured artists representing different shades of pop instead of blues, and the event took place at JioGarden in the office district of Bandra Kurla Complex instead of Mehboob Studios. The acts perform at the Media City Amphitheatre against the backdrop of some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world.
At the fest, though Snow Patrol, Jamiroquai and Alicia Keys delivered a range of not-quite-jazz sounds, we’re pleased to report that they each brought their A-Game. It’s part of the reason why the Dubai Jazz Festival has frequently won Best Festival at the awards given out by listings publication Time Out Dubai. Like the Mahindra Blues Festival, the quality is consistent. Never mind that homegrown bands and jazz groups are restricted to the opening slots.
Sadly, we couldn’t catch any of the UAE-based artists – folk-rock band Vandalye performed on day one, soul singer Abri the following day, and swing outfit The Swing Revue on the final day – because they went on at the early hour of 6: 45 pm. We did manage to see the penultimate acts, French harmonica player Frederic Yonnet, American blues singer and guitarist Keb’ Mo’ and British jazz vocalist and pianist Reuben James who played on day one, two and three respectively.
Based on what we heard, they all deserved a larger crowd, but had to face the fallout of the 45-to-60-minute gaps between sets, which are devised to encourage attendees to visit the F&B counters. Because, after all, few would leave their coveted spots after the headliners arrived.
Purveyors of pristine pop-rock Snow Patrol voiced what many were thinking when they took the stage on day one. “We’re here under false pretenses,” said vocalist and frontman Gary Lightbody. “Our jazz is really bad.” For a guitar-fuelled band with songs that seem like they were made for stadiums, they’ve always been all about the ballads. “Open Your Eyes,” the de facto title track from their best-selling album to date, 2016’s Eyes Open, prompted the first big sing-along. Breakthrough single “Run,” which Lightbody informed the audience earned them a Number One via Leona Lewis’ remake, got hands swaying. “Chasing Cars,” expectedly, got all the phone cameras out.
The stark “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?,” off their last release 2018’s Wildness, for which Lightbody was accompanied only by Johnny McDaid on the piano, was a surprising highlight. But it was also sweet to see some mom dancing during the almost disco-ish “Call Out In The Dark,” their most dance-friendly tune, and the synth-poppy, anthem-like “Just Say Yes” proved an appropriately euphoric concert closer. The worst thing we could say about Snow Patrol’s set is that it felt too short; 15 songs were played in 75 minutes with an efficiency that left us wanting more.
There were no such complaints with Jamiroquai on the next day. Frontman and singer Jay Kay and his seven-piece band treated us to their acid jazz jams, with the aid of two backing vocalists, for almost two hours straight. From the disco-soul of “Shake It On” to infectious encore “Virtual Insanity,” their performance seemed like an outdoor dance party. Jay Kay, who came crowned with his new color-changing LED helmet, looked like he was having the most fun of all, showing off moves that looked like a mix of the moonwalk, the robot and steps from Saturday Night Fever.
For Jamiroquai may be a group most strongly associated with the Nineties but much of their appeal lies in their ability to repackage the sounds of the Seventies. The influence of that decade’s foremost producers Giorgio Moroder and Niles Rodgers weighs equally heavily on newer tracks such as “Superfresh,” from 2017’s Automaton, as on older tunes like 2002’s “Love Foolosophy” (which they could have sued Daft Punk for copying in 2013’s “Get Lucky” had the song not been co-produced by Rodgers himself).
At times, Jamiroquai made us feel we really were at a ‘jazz’ festival.’ Like, for instance, during Jay Kay’s scats on slow jam “Space Cowboy,” and keyboard Matt Johnson’s improvised solo on “Runaway.” The standout moment of the night, however, came courtesy of the vintage soul of “Cosmic Girl,” which was played to crisscrossing patterns of laser beam lights, making for both an aural and visual spectacle.
If Snow Patrol pleased fans and Jamiroquai threw a sonic celebration, Alicia Keys presented the kind of set that turns casual listeners into admirers. She might have come dressed for the races in a derby hat and a long checked dress but the singer and pianist did not sit back and relax. She spent each minute charming the crowd by preceding almost each song with a short introduction, urging us to participate in the proceedings by clapping or singing along, and even bringing her eight-year-old son Egypt on to the stage at one point.
In a city where local talent isn’t always given its due, it was great to see her enlist a quintet of Emirati instrumentalists to play on show opener, the stomping “28 Thousand Days.” And like Jamiroquai, she embellished some of her tunes with jazz stylings. Her cover of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me,” which she said was a personal favorite, was augmented by solos from her band’s guitarist and keyboardist and a vocal call and response with the audience. “Fallin’” included an instrumental segment on the piano that would sound at home at the smokiest of jazz bars.
By the time she got to her exhilarating medley of “Girl On Fire,” “No One” and “Empire State of Mind Part 2,” we had to abandon our note taking. Like the rest of the nearly packed 10,000-capacity venue, we wanted to do nothing apart from watching her in action. There was no encore but by then it was clear that she had given us her all, her dress soaked in perspiration. At just an over an hour, her gig was approximately the same length as Snow Patrol’s yet it didn’t feel as short. On the contrary, it was an attestation as to why she’s a worthy contender for the title of the present-day queen of R&B.
“Take Back The City”
“Crack The Shutters”
“Open Your Eyes”
“Life On Earth”
“Make This Go On Forever”
“Shut Your Eyes”
“Called Out In The Dark”
“You’re All I Have”
“What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?”
“Just Say Yes”
“Shake It On”
“Use The Force”
“(Don’t) Give Hate A Chance”
“White Knuckle Ride”
“Traveling Without Moving”
“28 Thousand Days”
“You Don’t Know My Name”
“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”
“How Come U Don’t Call Me”
“Raise A Man”
“Like You’ll Never See Me Again”
“If I Ain’t Got You”
“Girl On Fire”/”No One”/”Empire State Of Mind Part 2”