As the first DJ to headline the Grand Prix’s main stage, Armin van Buuren was always a divisive booking – dance music itself being a divisive force. But any doubters needed only to scan the shimmering sea of swaying limbs that greeted the Dutchman’s epic two-and-a-half-hour set at du Arena on Friday night.
He opened with the title track of his latest album Intense – a mini-symphony of euphoric strings and pounding beats. The word hung symbolically on the big screens around him, a mission statement of what was to come.
He may be just one man, but van Buuren’s colossal stage show was bigger than any band, showers of confetti, shots of smoke and blazing pyrotechnics dazzling frazzled race-goers’ senses. The DJ is a true connoisseur of sound, his blaring sonic palette and deep bass juddering harder than the zoom of any F1 car, while the dramatic visuals made ample use of the huge new three-tier screens either side of the stage.
Amazingly, this dramatic production is a scaled-down take on the DJ's ongoing Armin Only tour – notably lacking the aerial artists – but customised specially for Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a special weekend,” said van Buuren, the biggest trance DJ on the planet, in an exclusive backstage interview moments before taking to the stage. “It’s a big honour to be asked to play the Formula One, and we wanted to bring something other than just a normal DJ set.”
Most of van Buuren’s music has just two modes – in-your-face upbeat and full-on audio assault – and van Buuren’s stamina may have outlived some of his audience’s. But the majority of the crowd were with Armin all the way, arms aloft and euphoric grins the norm.
The DJ matched his young and energetic fans, jumping up and down with the childish enthusiasm of a man half his 37 years, mouthing words and punching the sky so often that at times it seemed his hands spent more time in the air than at the decks. Fatboy Slim anthem Eat Sleep Rave Repeat was broken down into a mantra-like singalong, the DJ leading the thronging masses into a collective left-right wave.
“It’s a sign of the times,” added van Buuren backstage. “Young people grow up not listening to rock music or hip-hop or R&B anymore. They grow up listening to this thing that some people call EDM, or whatever you want to call it.”
While there were more EDM-influenced builds, drops and bass lines than in earlier, purer tours, van Buuren deserves credit for sticking to his musical ideals and, unlike many competing DJs, choosing not to flower his set with familiar floor-fillers.
Two notable exceptions were takes on Tiësto's Adagio for Strings and Faithless's Insomnia, timeless anthems that cued mass hysteria. The biggest reaction of all, however, went to van Buuren's own sole Billboard smash This Is What it Feels Like, an inevitable encore which began as a live solo piano ballad before building to a collective, electric catharsis.
Earlier in the evening, the UAE duo Hollaphonic played the biggest gig of their career, assisted by guest vocalists Kevin Murphy, Brit Chick and Dia Hassan. The band's radio-ready electro-pop translated incredibly to the arena-sized audience, surely winning them stacks of new fans. All eyes are now on next year's hotly anticipated debut album, Personal Space.