November 19, 2010 6:27 pm

Getting down and dirty in Abu Dhabi

The consummate rock star delivers a storming set in a city undergoing an extravagant cultural transformation

Now there is a question that proves, if proof were needed, that these are fast-changing and bewildering times. Last weekend I watched Prince, the diminutive rock star, play a characteristically storming set in an improvised outdoor arena next to the new Grand Prix circuit in the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi is not known for its love of funky music, and Prince is a relative stranger to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Perhaps, said one wag, they thought they were getting a real prince. But then again, they have enough of their own. There is only one conclusion left to draw: Abu Dhabi is getting down and dirty. And Prince is taking the business of global stardom more literally than was ever thought possible.

I hadn’t heard much of Prince since I went out one morning some three years ago to get his new CD, Planet Earth, which was being given away free with a Sunday newspaper. That seemed to be a nadir in the fortunes of a man who had been, for a few bombastic years, the most important rock artist of his generation. I played the album in the car. It was OK. It passed the time. There were some clumsy riffs, overlong guitar parts, and some frankly embarrassing posturing for a man then approaching his 50th birthday. The CD was ultimately as disposable as the newspaper. I don’t even know if I kept it.

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Peter Aspden

The Prince of the 1980s, by contrast, had been a figure of substantial cultural importance. A beguiling fusion of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, an extravagant instrumentalist, sinuous dancer and mischievous manipulator of rock music’s primal eroticism, he was a one-off. His only contemporary rivals for significance, Michael Jackson and Madonna, may have been more commercially successful, but both lacked his cheerful eclecticism and inventiveness. Not only was he as consummate a showman, he could write songs too. So many songs, that he gave some of the best away: “Manic Monday” to the Bangles; “Nothing Compares 2 U” to Sinead O’Connor; the magnificent “I Feel for You” to Chaka Khan.

But as is often the way, he lost his way. A contractual dispute with a record company in the 1990s persuaded him to dispense with his name and adopt a strange-looking symbol instead. He became The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, and a figure of ridicule. He wrote the word “slave” across his cheek, but there was scant sympathy. He had flirted too charmingly with us to have us believe that he was in serious trouble. But he was. The unpronounceable symbol years heralded existential crisis.

The legal dispute was settled in the first year of the new millennium (his apocalyptic dance anthem “1999” had been the definitive soundtrack to the end-of-an-era parties) and Prince became a Jehovah’s Witness. Since then, he has muddled along, relying on back catalogue and a solid reputation for sparkling live performances. His fan base is strong and loyal, and respectfully turns up to his concerts.

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By neat coincidence, Abu Dhabi discovered oil in its territories in the year of Prince’s birth, 1958. It brought wealth and self-respect to the region. The city would not, in those days, have imagined that it would one day be building a master plan to become one of the world’s hubs of culture. But that is exactly what it envisions for itself. The widely-publicised plan to build a series of world class and iconic museums on Saadiyat island – a Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid – is breathtaking in its ambition. Sceptics wonder what, exactly, will fill the museums, and whether anyone will actually turn up to them.

But Abu Dhabi is unfazed, buoyed by the confidence that marks the inconceivably wealthy. It wants to attract the best in world culture. It wants to encourage its own culture. It wants to be talked about, in terms other than petro-chemical. And it wants, in its own quiet way, to get down and dirty. So here we were, on a hot November night, watching the latest instalment in Prince’s career reboot. It was a date fraught with tension: how would the two shape up?

Some basics first: yes, you could buy alcohol. Yes, Prince danced lasciviously, perhaps a notch or two down from what I remember, but there are hamstring issues once you turn 50. Yes, he had a girlie chorus, but they were middle-aged and covered up (and in stupendous voice). He played his old hits, soloed to excessive lengths, and generally gave everything. The crowd lapped it up. It was largely composed of ex-pats, and what seemed like a sprinkling of young Emiratis.

There was a long section when he sang “Whoa Abu Dhabi!” several times, and the audience answered back with interest. For the record, it also replied that, yes, it did like funky music. There were four encores, during which he played “Kiss”, one of his best songs, in a tight and lusty arrangement. By any measure, it was a great show, and a great venue. Both Prince and Abu Dhabi showed they can deliver. One is cruising smoothly towards lucrative retirement; the other is set to undergo the most extravagant of cultural transformations. “We are the New Power Generation!” exhorted the rock star at the end of the evening, after the name of his band in the early 1990s. And then, in a pointed afterthought: “And you are too!”

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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