John Newman likes standing motionless, silhouetted by a single spotlight. He also likes crashing to his knees, and thrashing his mic stand about like a toddler having a tantrum.
And he really, really likes Michael Jackson: it’s in the finger clicks and the way he spins on his tiptoes. And it’s in his monochrome get-up, his shiny black shoes, trousers and T-shirt – paired with bright white socks, and jacket. I was left wondering when he’d whip out the hat, too.
A year has been a long time in the life of this 24-year-old. Playing on Valentine’s Day last year, Newman appeared an assured star-in-the-making when he aced the inaugural RedFest DXB.
Headlining a free concert on Thursday to launch the new Dubai Design District (d3), Newman arrived as if a veteran superstar, introduced by a stream of news footage announcing his ascent.
Opening with the Calvin Harris collaboration Blame, Newman possessed the polished conviction of a homecoming stadium gig, not a one-off freebie 7,000 kilometres from his core market: jumping around like a hyperactive bunny, posturing cheekily and spending an awful lot of time on the floor – sitting, kneeling, slumped like a prize fighter between bouts, before suddenly leaping up for the title challenge of one more chorus.
After the fourth track, Stay With You, Newman made the first of his dramatic freeze-frames, standing motionless for 30 seconds that felt like minutes.
“My, my, my, back in Dubai,” he suddenly laughed. “Most of you won’t understand what I’m saying because I’m from the north of England. The way to deal with that is by cheering.” He made a few nonsense syllables and was met by adoring screams, the crowd eating out of his hands.
Amid all this showmanship, it was easy to overlook the music. Hits Losing Sleep and Cheating hit the target with laser-guided precision. But by the end of his 90-minute set, the cracks were starting to show – one too many nondescript, clumpy three-chord sledgehammer piano attacks. Not plastic pop, but smart genre writing, for sure.
And when every tune wraps with set-closing Springsteen-sized torrents of noise, you almost feel disappointed when he stays on the stage for more.
When Newman finally did split and return for an encore, a healthy portion of the crowd was singing his enormous breakout hit Love Me Again back towards the stage. It was a touching moment – but also underlined the sole reason most people were there.
The big question is whether he’s got enough to pull off this diva act, whether he can finish the myth that he is writing. Will anyone know who John Newman is in 10 years, or will he be back in Yorkshire working the building sites by 34?
Everything is riding on his second album which, he proudly told us, is all set to go after six months in the studio.
Newman was the most mainstream act on an impressive, packed three-day bill of cosmopolitan sounds at Meet d3.
Earlier on Thursday evening, the edgy Beirut five-piece Mashrou’ Leila were greeted by an ecstatic barrage of high-pitched squeals as they performed their distinctly Arabian take on indie-rock with flair and intent.
Friday’s highlights included Asian Underground forefather Talvin Singh, who mixed beats and samples with live tabla playing, and regional favourite The Narcicyst, who used the big stage and its impressive multimedia set-up to add extra force to his politically charged hip-hop in English and Arabic.