Ritchie is still good for the soul

American pop star reworks his classics to a delighted international crowd of fans, who also enjoy more traditional beats and stalls courtesy of Arab performers.

Lionel Richie performs at the du Arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Below, the crowd waits in anticipation of their favorite artists at Beats on the Beach. Waleed Shah for The National
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ABU DHABI // Soul survivor Lionel Richie took centre stage at Du Arena Saturday night to serve up a satisfying set of golden oldies.

Following the fast-paced dance-pop of Pitbull and the ominous beats of The Chemical Brothers at the preceding concerts, Richie’s slot in the Yasalam After-Race Concert Series offered a throwback to pop’s purer times.

The sense of anticipation was high among fans queueing up at the Yas Island concert venue.

“Of course I’m excited – it’s Lionel Richie, it’s old school,” said Susana Ribeiro, a 35-year old marketing manager from Portugal, who had made the drive down from Dubai.

“All those greatest hits. When I was growing up my mother and father were always playing these songs, it’s something we all know.”

French expatriate couple Richard, 60, and Katherine, 58, said they had spent the weekend taking a desert road trip, from their Abu Dhabi home, while listening to their favourite Richie tunes.

“Look at our age – this is our time, our music, we’ve been listening to these songs since the eighties,” said Richard, an IT consultant.

“We love Lionel Richie and living in Abu Dhabi is an opportunity to see him live for the first time,” added wife Katherine. “I’m surprised to see how many young people there are here – he’s a legend.”

Starting promptly at 9pm, the venue was notably busier than the previous two evenings.

At 67, Richie’s vocal chords sounded in fine shape as he launched into his opener Running with the Night, markedly rockier than the 1983 original.

Backed by an energetic five-piece band, the tempo dipped with touching ballad Penny Lover, also from the Grammy Award-winning Can’t Slow Down LP released in 1983.

“We’ve got memories to work through. Before you leave tonight you will remember where you were and what you were doing,” promised Richie, before launching into a singalong of the classic Easy, a relic of his time with Motown group The Commodores.

Canadian sisters Martha and Tafadzwa Takaendisa were among the fans who queued up two hours before the show to ensure they secured prime spots to dance close to the stage.

Martha, 34, who flew from Canada for the Grand Prix and concerts, said she dropped plans to attend an exclusive party so she could see her childhood idol.

“I’ve got so many favourite songs of his – Say You, Say Me, Dancing on the Ceiling,” said Martha, who also bought tickets for Rihanna’s show tonight.

As the fastest race cars in the world roared and revved their engines at Yas Marina Circuit, a different sound was filling the air at Heritage Plaza just down the street – traditional Arabic music.

Oud and drum melodies played over loudspeakers serenading visitors as they entered Yas Plaza, which hosted a handful of stalls displaying traditional Emirati culture and traditions.

For Hessa Al Jabri the opportunity to share the UAE’s rich traditions with a global audience was something in which take pride.

“The Formula One is an international event. People from all over the world come here,” said Ms Al Jabri, an Emirati. “For people who like racing, who like cars, it’s like a hub.”

Visitors seemed especially drawn to live cooking demonstrations of traditional Emirati sweets and coffee.

“Yeah, they’re really interested about national food, national dancing also,” said Ms Al Jabri, adding that yola performers would later put on a show.

Earlier, all eyes turned to the sky as UAE’s national aerobatics team Fursan Al Emarat performed before the start of the qualifying, dazzling the audience with manoeuvres such as vertically loops and free-falls.

Their tightly choreographed formations filled the sky with red, white and green smoke trails in honour of the coming UAE National Day celebrations.

“They’re amazing,” said 24-year-old Filipino Hardie Bueno, a graphic and web designer from Dubai.

Aisha Ghulam, 25, an Afghan born in the UAE, said the F1 Grand Prix and its events helped to build excitement for National Day. “Everyone loves to go to every event, attend the events, so it’s very exciting,” said Ms Ghulam.

At du Arena, Lionel Richie fans couldn’t contain their own enthusiasm for the American soul-pop star – even hours before he was set to take the stage at 9pm.

Across the water at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, Lebanese songbird Nancy Ajram led the bill for those gathered at Beats on the Beach.

And on the big screens set up, it was announced that British rockers Coldplay will be the headline act for the New Year’s Eve celebrations at du Arena.