Indian rock pioneer Gary Lawyer to headline Dubai’s Classic Rock Festival at The Music Room

Ahead of returning to perform in the UAE for the first time in two decades, Lawyer looks back on his storied life and career.

Gary Lawyer performs in Dubai on Friday. Courtesy The Music Room
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Gary Lawyer is a modest man – but there are only so many times you can dance around the fact that you are regarded as a rock legend.

“I don’t mean to be misunderstood,” he says, countless times, before going on to make another claim that really should sound like a boast, but somehow comes across as a statement of fact.

“I’ve been called India’s Jim Morrison, India’s Engelbert Humperdinck, the Indian Elvis, India’s Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra ...”.

As you might guess from this list, Lawyer is widely recognised as a pioneer of India's rock scene, after making a mighty mark in the 1990s with hits such as Nights on Fire – the first English-language track to be played on MTV India.

Now in his 60s, Lawyer endures as a cabaret-style act, reliving vintage heyday material alongside diverse and distinctive reinterpretations of western classics. His reputation adds gravitas to a set list that veers “from Sinatra to Creed”, he says. On Friday, Lawyer returns to perform in the UAE for the first time in more than 20 years. He is the headliner at the fourth annual edition of Rock Nation’s Classic Rock Festival, hosted at The Music Room in Dubai.

“I’m doing more shows than I’ve ever done before,” says Lawyer. “In terms of being busy, being established, there’s never been a better time. Obviously I’ve done something right.

“I’ve paid my dues – and carved a certain identity.”

Lawyer was born in Mumbai, and after graduating with a degree in economics and politics, he moved to New York City, where he studied music and earned a reputation on the Big Apple’s club scene.

It was after returning home "for family reasons" that Lawyer was signed by a record label. He returned to the United States to record his first two albums, starting with country-influenced debut This Cannot Wait.

However, it was the classic rock-flavoured follow-up The Other Side of Dawn – which packed notable anthems in the form of the title track, Nights on Fire and Riding – that saw Lawyer find unlikely fame.

His popularity reached as far as the Middle East. Despite having visited the UAE for a handful of private shows, Thursday's concert marks Lawyer's first public gig in the UAE since a tour in the early 1990s, during which he performed in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain. His greatest memory of the trip? Buying an illegal copy of The Other Side of Dawn.

“I thought it was kind of a compliment that someone should bother to pirate it,” he says with a laugh.

At his peak, Lawyer supported stadium behemoths, including Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams. His voice adorned jingles, including a memorable anti-­smoking anthem. When MTV India launched in 1996, Lawyer was invited to perform as part of a commemorative concert alongside legendary guitarist Slash ("An incredibly nice person," he says). His Nights of Fire was the first Indian-­English song to be played on the channel.

Today, Lawyer is more renowned for applying his rich baritone to a range of familiar covers, ranging from Rat Pack-era swing to 1990s grunge and countercultural classics by his personal favourites, The Doors. His last album, High Standards – Vol 1, a duet project recorded alongside Indian piano luminary Louis Banks, even saw Lawyer tackle jazz.

“I’m very certain about one thing,” he says, “I’m a singer first, and a songwriter second.”

However, for his first release since EMI's 2009's "best of" compilation, Lawyer is preparing to unleash a new collection of originals. Titled Heaven's Child, and teased by an early release of the title track, this seventh LP features the rocker, for the first time, playing every single instrument himself – including live keyboard drum simulators. "It's something I've always wants to do," he says.

Treading new ground at this point in his career – of his age Lawyer simply says “in my sixties”, while Wikipedia lists a birth year of 1959 – is admirable, but the rocker bristles at the idea of slowing down.

“In jazz and classical, you become a legend – but after a certain amount of time in rock, you become too old,” he says.

“I’ve never done anything but music. It’s really from the heart and soul – I’ve been really, really genuine, and I’ve ever tried to be something I’m not.

“I do believe in destiny – I can’t imagine doing anything else, or that I was born to do anything else.”

• Gary Lawyer performs on Friday, August 12, at The Rock Nation’s Classic Rock Festival, The Music Room, Majestic Hotel Tower, Bur Dubai. Show starts at 6pm; tickets from Dh100 at dubai.platinumlist.net

rgarratt@thenational.ae