And all that... jazz?
From a laid-back show by Tom Jones to a predictably diva-esque performance by Mariah Carey, gives his verdict on the Dubai Jazz Festival’s first two nights
“It’s New Year’s Eve all over again... but the real way we should have celebrated,” said Mariah Carey as she launched into Emotions at Dubai Jazz Festival – tackling the elephant in the room head-on. Thursday’s concert was Carey’s first public gig since that much- reported, televised “meltdown” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, in which she embarrassingly struggled through the same song, and was later revealed to be lip-synching.
Carey’s voice, the world’s media declared, was toast.
One felt the relieved swagger of a sportsperson scoring a goal as Carey blazed comfortably into the upper-registers of Emotions’s notorious vocal gymnastics.
Next came the other song she fluffed on December 31 – We Belong Together. The subtext was clear: Don’t write me off just yet. This one- off festival date, at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, before a full United States tour in March might have seemed like a safe place for the controversy- plagued star to warm-up away from the critical spotlight in the United States. In any case, there was no meltdown, no obvious fluffed lyrics or vocal shrapnel.
There was, however, plenty of Carey’s trademark diva antics – with rarely a break passing between songs without some kind of histrionic demand or remark.
Onstage for just shy of 80 minutes – minus a lengthy costume change – Carey found time to pick on a raft of bugbears the evening presented, including not having a mic stand, or later a stool, presented on queue – “I didn’t say I wanted one, but...”, she said.
She also picked on audience members smoking – twice. “Somebody’s smoking? Who’s trying to foil me? Why do you need to do it?” she demanded to know. “Just a thought – maybe you want to put the cigarettes out.”
And when Carey’s vital vocal throat spray failed to arrive on click, she coaxed the audience into chanting “give her her spray”. I lost count of the number of times Carey loudly retreated to the back of the stage to take “a splash” of refreshment.
This, then, was Carey in all her diva-ish glory, a proud reminder of the days when pop stars had personalities – and still sold records. Her back catalogue is brimming with no fewer than 18 US Billboard No. 1 singles – a record topped only by The Beatles – but many of these were sidelined in a set overflowing with decade-defying hits.
Crowd favourites included the retro swing of Always Be My Baby and Vision of Love, her debut single from 1990. She wrapped the show just after midnight with the anthem Hero. There was no encore, and Carey notably did not find time to include the ultimate teary singalong – and arguably most laborious vocal workout – Without You.
That aside, all other evidence suggests the NYE scare was just that. Carey is as eccentric, inimitable and immutable as ever – and her searing, prized voice remains in fine health.
The festival began a day earlier with a headline slot from Tom Jones, who remains on the road at a remarkable 76- years- old. One detected a whiff of circus show wonder from the audience, gathered there to see whether he could still deliver the goods. It would be condescending to declare Jones has still “got it”. But he does boast a mix of professionalism and charisma that perhaps only five decades of touring and performing can breed. And while there was some slight evidence of strain, Jones’s voice managed everything he asked of it.
Leaping the decades and octaves alike, this was an evening of hits and misses – and often the twee vintage chart “hits” felt pale next to more recent, rawer material more suited to Jones’s matured vocal style. Backed by just guitar and drums, White Stripes- style, Jones began convincingly with two gutsy blues vamps – John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell and gospel traditional Run On – both of which he covered on 2010’s Praise & Blame.
Reaching back to his 1960s heyday, Jones appeared aware of his own quaint anachronism, grinning with seeming wild irony during the dated, disposable pop What’s New Pussycat. While It’s Not Unusual was sensibly played relatively straight, Delilah was given a rocking, radical reworking – a hint of mariachi emerging after a spacey, surf-guitar intro.
For all the vintage swagger and spectacle, Jones’s weathered gravitas weighed heaviest when he dialled things back down with a confessional cover of the late Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song. First put on record by Jones in 2012, a quarter-century after its composition, the song sounds like it could have been written for the ageing singer.
“Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey / I ache in the places where I used to play... I’m just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song,” he sings. “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
Tom Jones, and Mariah Carey, below, performed on the first two nights of Dubai Jazz Festival.