Review: Prince’s invitation-only show at Pacha Ibiza Dubai

Resplendent in a shiny suit, the singer took the stage at a fund-raiser for the charity Autism Rocks – and put on one of the best gigs the UAE has ever seen.

Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL at a charity gig at Pacha Ibiza Dubai for Autism Rocks. Courtesy Done Events
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It wasn’t such a “secret” gig in the end. The moment news leaked, a few days earlier, that Prince (yes, Prince) would be performing a private, invitation-only show for a few hundred guests at a Dubai nightclub, social media channels erupted. It seemed half the town was clamouring to beg, borrow or steal a ticket to the musical happening of the year.

And who could blame them? This was, after all, the artist most definitely known as Prince – a superstar ranked among the best-selling musicians ever; a man behind dozens of radio hits and a handful of bona fide generational anthems.

The buzz was deafening. What will he wear? How long will he play? What will he play? What was he even doing playing a tiny club show in Dubai?

To speed things up, the answers were: a ridiculous reflective suit; one hundred minutes; everything; to raise funds for the UAE-based charity Autism Rocks.

Despite a lack of any official advertisement, arriving at Pacha Ibiza Dubai on Wednesday night it was clear that it was not business as usual. A steady stream of well-heeled, mature faces mixed with typical club punters. Downcast souls sat mournfully on the Souk Madinat Jumeirah's central roundabout, hollering desperately for tickets to Prince's first UAE gig since the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A cameraman stood around snapping dull pictures of the venue's facade, clearly not allowed in (nor was The National's photographer, and seemingly every photographer in town, professional or otherwise).

Inside, a silent charity auction revealed the gig's true and worthy intentions, with rafts of memorabilia signed by names including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bono and Amy Winehouse (sample price: a signed, framed copy of Bruce Springsteen's Born In the USA carried a reserve of Dh5,308).

Prince had played a similar gig for Autism Rocks at London’s Koko two days earlier, which attracted a slew of celebrities and public figures, from Nick Clegg to Noel Gallagher. While we might lack that star power in the UAE, local personalities spotted milling around included the radio presenters Kris Fade and Geordiebird, and TV’s Layne Redman – rocking a purple jacket, no less.

At 10.25pm, Prince took to the tiny stage. Dressed in that shiny suit, he instantly appeared part-futuristic alien, part-anachronistic funk mongrel. Prince’s Afro is as healthy as ever, even at the age of 56, and is a cross between Hendrix and Sly Stone. An opening blistering salvo of guitar noodling did little to dim the first comparison, while the thick funk of the backing group 3rdeyegirl paid ample homage to the latter.

Despite the bombastic musical entrance, Prince's arrival perhaps lacked the expected euphoria as guests bumped around the club's circular perimeter to get a view. But when, a few songs in, he dropped 1999, the room literally exploded. It suddenly hit, goosebump-style, just how surreal it was to be hearing this song, live, just a few metres from the man who wrote it.

“This party might go all night,” quipped the singer. Yes please, Prince, yes please.

In fact, it went on until a little after midnight. Prince is a theatrical, consummate performer, relaxing into, and clearly relishing, the super-hits Little Red Corvette, Kiss and Nothing Compares 2 U, a song he wrote but was made famous by Sinéad O'Connor. Having ticked most of the boxes, around the hour-mark the band blasted off on a stratospheric funk-rock jam, which filtered some of the casuals out, before Prince sat for a solo medley of ballads at the piano.

Those who stayed were rewarded with a cover of Michael Jackson's disco floor-filler Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, breaking the groove down into the refrain "Dubai, are you hot? No – you're cool", one of dozens of shout-outs to the city.

Oddly for Prince, a man known for mammoth all-nighters, there was just one encore. But that encore was Purple Rain, which came complete with the obligatory teary crowd singalong, and epic guitar solo.

Shows such as this aren’t, for Prince, strictly a new thing – he performed numerous, unadvertised and cheaply ticketed “guerrilla gigs” across London this time last year to glowing five-star reviews. Fans still gush about his last “secret” gig in the UAE, at the Yas Island Skybar in 2010, two nights before his headline F1 slot. But geography dictates that casual concerts such as this are rare in the Middle East, and both Prince and Autism Rocks deserve credit for offering a night that will rightly go down in UAE folklore among the most treasured collective musical memories.