With the likes of Kanye West, Beyonce and Prince playing the du Arena on Yas Island in previous years, the big reveal of the headliners at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concerts has an excitement akin to the likes of the Glastonbury festival announcement. And this year’s line-up is no different, with rapper Post Malone, R&B’s The Weeknd, soul-popper Sam Smith and perennial hard rockers Guns ’N Roses wowing Formula 1 fans from Thursday to Sunday. Remember that entry to the after-race concerts is only available to existing F1 ticket holders.
Post Malone, or Austin Richard Post to his Californian friends, is an intriguing choice to open up proceedings on Thursday, if only because at first glance his music might seem to be too bleak and loveless for such a celebratory weekend. But this is a 23 year-old rapper who broke Apple Music’s streaming record with his single Rockstar last year. With a staggering 25m plays in a single week, perhaps due to a calculating YouTube video, which merely repeated the chorus five times in a row, its success proved that there are many more routes to rock stardom than simply strapping on a guitar. Being a rockstar, for Post Malone, is clearly about more than the music - his hit song is just nuanced enough in the clichéd descriptions of champagne-soaked parties for it to be unclear whether Post finds this state of affairs to be thrilling or depressing.
What’s particularly fascinating about his music is that even though it sits squarely amid the kind of melodic rap that made stars of Drake and Frank Ocean, the sensitivity in his voice means it’s not so difficult to imagine rock or country fans finding some kind of pleasure in his undeniably catchy current album Beerbongs and Bentleys. That’s despite the fact it mainly chugs along at glacial pace and Post spends a lot of time moaning about how miserable it is to be wealthy and famous and having to go to loads of parties. Just in case we haven’t got the message, there’s a song on the album called Rich and Sad. Bless him and the barbed wire he has tattooed across his forehead.
Talking of pop stars complaining about the fruits of their fame and fortune, The Weeknd’s slot on Friday works as a neat segue from Post Malone. Post surely studied how The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye became a superstar on the back of doleful, slow R&B; where Tesfaye differs is that he possesses an undeniable – and enjoyable – vocal similarity to Michael Jackson. Live shows, too, are honed into energetic disco-funk sing-alongs thanks to his collaborations with Daft Punk ( Starboy, I Feel It Coming) and Britney Spears/Taylor Swift hitmaker-in-chief Max Martin ( I Can’t Feel My Face). All of which is a long way from the self-release of his
debut mixtape House Of Balloons in 2011; released anonymously and sampling indie favourites Cocteau Twins and Beach House, there was a gritty underground aloofness which critics and fans loved. But there was little to suggest that The Weeknd would one day play arenas packed with devoted fans. The through line from there to No.1 albums and sold out tours is Tesfaye’s cherubic voice though, projecting the same kind of contradictions as Post Malone: hard edged, amoral even, yet somehow vulnerable, too.
Saturday sees more mainstream fare – but no less interesting for it – when Sam Smith brings his slick pop-soul to the du Arena. Where there’s a very obvious edge to Post Malone and The Weeknd, Smith’s ballads are anguished in a way which, to be brutal, encourages women of a certain age to give him a big hug and tell him it’ll all be ok. Which is not to say that such vulnerability and romantic despair can’t soar in an arena setting; Smith’s Grammy-winning Stay With Me from his 12m-selling debut album In The Lonely Hour has become a 21st century gospel classic (even though he ended up having to give some song-writing credits to Tom Petty due to the significant resemblance to I Won’t Back Down), while first single Too Good At Goodbyes from last year’s The Thrill Of It All similarly builds to a immensely satisfying retro-soul crescendo.
On the subject of awards, Smith won an Oscar for his stirring Bond theme tune for Spectre, Writing’s On The Wall. It was the also the first Bond theme song to reach No.1 in the UK - which, given the company it was in, is testament to Sam Smith’s vocal prowess, ability to communicate deep emotion and huge popularity.
And it’s also a nice link to Sunday’s headliners, Guns N’ Roses, given it will be a major surprise if they don’t play their hugely popular cover of Bond theme tune Live And Let Die. While it’s not their song, it somehow says everything about Axl Rose’s band of reprobates; hard-rocking, grandiose, bombastic and, well, great fun.
Though it hasn’t always seemed like being in Guns ’N Roses has been great fun for the band themselves, with break-ups and break-downs a common occurrence. Still, the deluxe reissue of 1987 debut Appetite For Destruction earlier this year reminded everyone just how thrilling and raw this LA band were back in the day. “A document of rock & roll perfection,” trumpeted Rolling Stone, and for once it’s difficult to argue with the hyperbole. An incredible combination of Led Zeppelin, The Who, Rolling Stones and any number of punk bands, Sweet Child O’Mine might have been destroyed by karaoke ubiquity but Guns ’N Roses could effectively play this record from start to finish in Abu Dhabi, perform November Rain and Live And Let Die as an encore and everyone would go home happy.
Indeed, the days when they rarely sent fans home happy – constantly turning up late for shows or cutting them short – seem to have come to a merciful end with a sober Slash back in the band, and “everybody getting along great.” Apparently, as a big petrol head, Rose actually asked to play in Abu Dhabi. Which means that for one night in November, it will definitely feel like Paradise City.
Guns ’N Roses