Review: Camila Cabello and Macklemore impress at RedFestDXB

Both solo artist came to Dubai with a point to prove in their performances

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For many pop stars, RedFestDXB is all about fresh starts.

Last year, Kesha used the Dubai Media City Amphitheatre stage to re-emerge after a bitter legal battle with her former producer while RnB crooner Craig David was also there to cement his comeback with a killer vocal and DJ mash-up set.

That rejuvenating vibe is partly down to the festival being set in February, a time where a lot of artists return to active duty after Christmas and the New Year’s holidays. RedfestDXB offers a great opportunity to limber up for the busy touring year ahead.

Another reason is, undoubtedly, the audience itself. With 10,000 in attendance on each night of the two-day festival, they are young (mostly teenagers) and enthusiastic to attend the only UAE music event solely dedicated to radio-friendly music – it is organised by the Dubai based Virgin Radio after all.

Sometimes, such a warm welcome can result in artists taking it too easy; prime examples being Rita Ora’s shambolic performance in the inaugural 2014 festival — which she made up for in style when returning two years later — and last year’s poor showing by Kesha. But for the most part, artist step it up for the receptive crowd and walk away pumped up for a big year ahead.

Cabello brought the voice and charm

It was a similar case on February 15, the last night of the festival, which saw headlining sets by singer Camila Cabello and rapper Macklemore, two relatively new solo artists with a lot to prove to both fans and the industry.

Cabello’s pleasing set blew away any lingering memories of that relatively quiet Fifth Harmony member performing at the festival in 2016.

The 21-year-old wants us to forget that gig too, perhaps, after declaring her solo Dubai appearance as “my first time being here.”

A lot can happen in the pop world over the space of three years. It was a time which saw Cabello leave the group in a semi-acrimonious fashion, go to the studio and release a sultry solo pop album — not to mention, it saw the remaining members of Fifth Harmony grounding to a halt a few days after their Abu Dhabi performance in 2018.

To blame Cabello for the girl-group's demise would be unfair. A cursory listen to last year's debut album, Camilla, indicates she wanted to work with a wider pallet than the streamlined RnB of Fifth Harmony. The solo release boasted various styles ranging from Latin pop, ballads and intimate acoustic numbers to showcase her dynamic voice.

Despite warning the crowd that she was recovering from a cold, there was nothing wrong with her vocals in Dubai. Cabello, dressed in a slick black outfit with embroidered jacket and matching gloves, was in fine form and her summery songs delivered some much needed warmth in what was an increasingly chilly night.

What immediately stood out about her one-hour set was that she loves to sing. An obvious observation perhaps, but with pop-stars nowadays preferring to dance more in their shows, a fully sung track is a rare experience

Cabello took it even further by opening her set with Never Be the Same. The 80s inspired power ballad is not an easy number with its shifts from falsetto to full throttle soaring vocals in the chorus, but she does it effortlessly.

Next up was a double dose of Caribbean pop with the buoyant Lost Control and the infectious Inside Out — the latter neatly seguing into a breakdown which showcased Cabello's adept moves alongside her six-strong dance crew.

Another interesting aspect of Cabello’s live performance is on how approachable she is. There was none of that cool detachedness of an Ariana Grande performance or the nauseating demagoguery that has Demi Lovato calling her fans “Lovatics” or Katy Perry addressing her brood as “my Katy Cats.”

Cabello's ego is in check as she rightly assumes the RedfestDXB audience was not full of diehard supporters. She reached out to the non-converted with plenty of personal anecdotes on friendship and vulnerability, which struck a chord. She cannily used that intimacy to usher in the folky singalong Real Friends, which had her invite members of the audience to perform with her on stage.

With the exception of an ill-advised drab cover of Elvis Presley's Can't Help Falling in Love, Cabelllo kept he show moving at all times. Unsurprisingly, she closed the set with her global hit Havana which elicited the biggest singalong of the night. Her performance was definitely a case of saving the best for last.

Macklemore is his own man

But that doesn’t mean Macklemore wasn’t up to scratch. He also came to Dubai to challenge some assumptions. This was his first UAE performance as a solo act, having come to Abu Dhabi in 2014 as part of the (now on hiatus) duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

On the music front, Macklemore’s solo tracks are not far removed from the funk and pop stylings of the Grammy Award winning group, but it was on the performance side where Macklemore impressed.

Without Ryan Lewis behind on the DJ decks to provide another visual point for fans, Macklemore went all out on the on-screen visuals which included his music videos and animation. On the stage, he was backed by an energetic 8-piece band, including a two-piece horn section, that did more than just play.

In a nod to Bruno Mars's brilliant backing group The Hooligans, Macklemore's crew sang, danced and indulged in the odd bout scissor kicks. The bustling one-hour set featured festival ready anthems Ain't Going to Die Tonight, Can't Hold Us and Dance Off. The latter had Macklemore invite two students on stage to showcase their moves before indulging himself in a mini-crowd surf.

In what his first show of the year, Macklemore’s RedfestDXB display was crowd pleasing in the best sense, and ultimately proves that as a performer, he is his own man.