Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Chicago Blues Brothers in Dubai, October 2011

With Britain in the icy grip of the first snows of the winter it seems like a good time to revisit the last week of October 2011, when The Chicago Blues Brothers played five shows in hot and sunny Dubai. What follows is a 'tidied-up' version of the notes that were written at the time - they've been edited a bit here and there but basically left as they were. I guess everyone involved will have different memories from our visit, and different views on what we did and where we did it - these are mine. Enjoy.

Tuesday 25th, midday

So here I am in room 27 of The Emirates Academy. After a cup of black coffee which paranoia dictated that I made with bottled water (as we got off the bus Matt asked 'can we drink the water?' Pete's emphatic 'NO!' was met with dismay and a wonder of where we could buy bottled water at 4.30 am; fortunately there was some in our rooms) and a quick scan of the television channels (nothing on as usual) I'm sitting on the end of my bed scribbling. 'Who's Next' is playing thanks to the small iPod dock that I've bought with me ('out here in the fields, I fought for my meals...') and I'm looking out of the window, there's a small courtyard and that weird building that looks a bit like a sail is looming in the near-distance - I can only see the top of it as it's obscured by the rest of the courtyard buildings.
We arrived here around 2.45 am local time. I think we're 3 hours ahead of Britain here and we left Heathrow about 5.30 pm so we were in the air for about 6 hours, the longest flight that I've done for quite some time. As previously mentioned we're staying in The Emirates Academy which as I understand is a complex where hotel staff are trained. First impressions are good - I've got what I guess would be marketed as a 'small apartment', as you walk in there's a bathroom on the right (isn't that a Creedance Clearwater Revival song?!?) with kitchen facilities opposite it on the left. Things then open out into a room with a single bed in the far right-hand corner, a couple of tables, cupboards, wardrobes - you know the sort of thing. It's clean and comfortable although it has to said that by the time we got here I probably could have slept standing up.
After we'd got our baggage we'd made our way through Dubai International Airport to the area where we were meeting our bus. I say something like 'this is quite a building' to Pete, he just laughs - 'you ain't seen nothing yet'. He used to live here so I suppose he should know... as we leave the airport building the temperature jumps by what feels like about 20 degrees or so - 'feel the heat, baby' says Dave as I for one realise just how efficient the air conditioning has been. Fortunately the bus is air conditioned too. Our journey through the night is enlivened by Matt's somewhat animated comments ('I asked the stewardess for a tonic water, she offered me gin with it and then kept coming back...') and the inevitable 'what's that building over there?' from the people like me who have never been to Dubai before. It all looked amazing. I wonder if it is?

Today is 'set-up day'. We're due at The Al Muna Restaurant for a meal at 2 pm followed by an afternoon setting up at The Medinat Theatre (part of the Jumeriah Hotel complex) in anticipation of 5 consecutive evening shows at the venue. I've bought with me my trusty Telecaster, a Digitech Screamin' Blues overdrive pedal (to boost my solos in volume) and some cables; I'm looking forward to trying out the Fender combo that's been provided by the theatre although I'll bet now that it'll be too loud - at this sort of thing they invariably provide excellent equipment that's far too powerful for the job in hand. Oh well - let's see what the next few hours bring.

Time for a shower. More later.

6 pm

Well not only was the amp way too powerful (it was a brand new Fender Twin Reverb combo in case you were wondering) but it also appeared to have some sort of earth problem. Various attempts were made by all and sundry to lose the cracking sounds that occurred every time that let go of my strings but to no avail; 'let's try the Marshall' said the cheery stagehand - that'll be an amp that's not only too loud but that is totally inappropriate for the job in hand then. Oh well, let's give it a go... in the event the clean channel of the Vintage Modern combo sounded fine, especially when I trod on the pedal for solos. The cheery stagehand resolved to attempt to sort out the Fender combo while we set about 'set up day'. I'm not sure why we couldn't have done it tomorrow and then played a show but I suppose ours is not to realise why, as someone once said... we spent a fair bit of time running through 'Hey Bartender' which was due to make it's first appearance in our show - with it sounding good we turned our attention to a less obvious addition to our set. If you've ever seen our theatre show then you'll know that we usually play a medley of 'John The Revelator' / 'Can I Get A Witness?' / 'Higher And Higher' to end the first half, with Pete playing a particularly over-the-top preacher character called (wait for it!) The Reverend I. C. Delight. However since we're in a country where pretending to be a mad vicar is unlikely to be a particularly clever thing to do (to say the least!) an alternative idea had to be found. Pete had suggested 'We Are Family' which no one was too sure about - then one day I was listening to Sly And The Family Stone... hmmm... how about 'Dance To The Music'? We're only playing a minute or so of the song to let Pete make his entrance as 'Soul Brother Number 1' and it doesn't take too long to get together - let's see if we can remember both of the new numbers tomorrow for the first show.
Prior to that we'd all met in the restaurant for some food - and what amazing food it was. We're due back there at 8 o'clock for an evening meal - I expect to go home heavier than when I left.

Wednesday 26th, 9 am

A half hour or so ago I was awoken by a very - make that very - loud 'DING DONG! which then re-occurred another couple of times. Surely I don't have a doorbell? But if I don't have a doorbell then where is the sound coming from? When it went again I stumbled across my room towards the door, struggling with a dim recollection that Dave and Richard had said that they were off to a market today. Surely I hadn't agreed to go with them? As I looked through that weird fisheye thingy that you get on hotel (and indeed house) front doors I saw their beaming faces and realised that, yes, I had agreed to go with them. Sorry lads, I'm not awake yet. Bah! Still I'm awake now so I might as well have a cup of coffee and get myself together - after all, I can always have a sleep later if I need to.
When we stumbled back to The Academy last night after a few drinks Matt and myself had been pleased to find the shop on the complex to still be open, and so bought some milk. I've just found it - it's frozen solid. A measure of how tired I was when I went to bed is that I put it in the freezer rather than the fridge.

This day can only improve.

4 pm

And it did - well it certainly hasn't got any worse. I bumped into Matt on my way to breakfast - we arrived at the restaurant to find Pete in a state of some consternation over arrangements for the next few days. There was apparently no problem with the shows, all of which were selling healthily, but over the times and the places where the band could get food. He'd received an early morning text requesting that the band all have breakfast by 8.30 - without making us all sound like lazy sods that was at best unlikely and at worst impossible. There was also a request for a 'technical run through' before the show - didn't we do that yesterday? He looked troubled but resolved to sort everything out; I received a text message a few hours later to the effect that he had. Good man.
After eating we returned to The Academy - Matt decided to go to the gym (there's less chance of me doing that than all the band having breakfast before 8.30!) while I returned to my room to spend some time revising T.V. Smith songs for an upcoming gig at The 12 Bar Club, going through some Ruts D.C. material for the upcoming rehearsals and, well, if I'm honest, sleeping for an hour or so. I think the heat might already be getting to me a bit - it's over 90 degrees in old money and I'm just not used to it! Seriously though, I've never been one for the sun so I'm trying to drink plenty of water and not be too silly about things.

5.15 pm

It's nearly time to leave for the theatre to prepare for our first show. I've put my stage clothes and shoes in my bag. I've changed the strings on my Telecaster. I'm ready to rock.

Thursday 2.35 am

Well it turned out that whilst I was indeed ready to rock, the amplifier wasn't. Halfway through 'Do You Love Me?' it stopped working completely - with the cheery stagehand nowhere to be seen myself and Pete (with him dressed in a very loud yellow suit in anticipation of his appearance as Fab Calloway singing 'Minnie The Moocher') ended up scrabbling around backstage looking for the Fender combo that went wrong during yesterday's soundcheck. We eventually found it - as I plugged it in I wondered if the cheery stagehand had managed to fix the earth problem... I played a chord and it sounded great. Hurrah.
In the meantime while we thought it was our worst gig for ages Pete, Mike, Matt and anyone else who spoke to anyone who wasn't in the band reported that as far as the audience was concerned it had been brilliant. The customer is always right don't you think?
After the show we went to The Barzar (yes, it's really called that) for a few drinks, which probably cost us most of tonight's wages. I really must find out what the exchange rate is.

12.50 pm

I've just read back through the barely-decipherable scrawl written when I got in last night - considering the fact that a fair few drinks had been consumed it actually makes reasonable sense. And not only did I remember to put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, I also managed to set an alarm for 9.30 to make sure I was up in time for breakfast. Still it was good to go out for a few beers after a show that none of us were particularly happy with; yes it went down well, but you still have to reach your own standards. Well, I think that you do anyway.
In the meantime I've bought my guitar back with me as my strings were in a very strange state after the show. The venue had used an oil-based smoke on stage (it's often used to make a haze so that the beams from the lights show up) which in addition to causing all sorts of problems for the horn players and the singers (especially Tracy) seems to have coated my strings - they feel as though I've done too many shows with them rather than just one. It's a bit of a waste but I've just put another new set on, and I believe they won't be using that particular type of smoke tonight. Good.
So now I've got Oasis on the iPod and I don't have to be back at the venue for about 4 hours. The rest of the band have gone to Wild Wadi (whatever that is!) but I'm quite happy here on my own. I don't know - you come halfway around the World to somewhere that a lot of people would love to visit, and then you spend all your time in an air conditioned darkened room. Oh well. I'll go out somewhere tomorrow. Probably.

Friday 2.35 pm

So what went wrong during last night's show then? Any guesses?

The battery ran out in my Screaming Blues pedal. I discovered this when I trod on it for my solo in 'Hey Bartender' and it got quieter rather than louder. Bugger! I'm sure - sure - that I changed it before we came out here. Oh well - compared to the amp stopping working the previous night it was pretty simple to deal with; I changed the battery in the interval and it sounded great. Overall it seemed to be a better show than Wednesday's although the audience were more laid back. Maybe it's third time lucky tonight?
I decided to visit Wild Wadi after all yesterday afternoon - yes, I'm surprised too. Well it's over the road from us and we've been given free passes so I decided to make a heroic effort and go and see what it was all about. It turned out to be a water park with various rides which look as though they ranged from relaxing to terrifying. I didn't have a go on any of them (sadly I'm far too self-conscious to take my shirt off in public) but I wandered around the park for 20 minutes or so before deciding that (a) I'll never fit into a world where something like this is regarded by many if not most people as a reasonable pastime, and (b) I probably looked like a middle-aged bloke walking around ogling a lot of scantily clad young women. Time to go back to revising T.V. Smith songs then!
After the show we returned to Barzar for the second night running as we'd been told the night before that we could buy a card which allowed us to get cut price drinks. For 90 Dirhams (about £15 or £16 pounds I think) we could have any 5 drinks from the allotted list - I fear that we were paying nearly that for 2 drinks the previous night! Heroic restraint from Matt and myself meant that we had 2 1/2 pints each, a good move as an excursion was planned for this morning...

After breakfast two taxis took us (Marc, Pete, Jayne, Chris, Mike, Phil and myself) out to the gold and spice Souks of Deira and Bur Dubai, perhaps best described as the 'old' parts of town. They couldn't have been more different to the area that we were staying and indeed working in. Gone are the fake buildings (and indeed fake people) only to be replaced by, well, fake goods. Men accost you every few seconds (and it's definitely a man's world, there are very few if any women to be seen) offering you the best (i.e. best fake) watch / camera / phone (delete as applicable) on the market. The more they try the more you want to walk away. Well, I do anyway. It's a totally different experience to the virtual Disneyland of the big hotels and shopping malls that so many would associate with Dubai, and it's one that's well worth having if only to keep things in perspective.

It's clearly not an easy life out here for most people.

Pete suggests a visit to The George and Dragon English bar in The Ambassador Hotel, it was a favourite of his when he lived here but it's changed - when he asks for the music to be turned down he's told that it's on the television and that it's 'automatic'. In the corner two Arabic-looking gentlemen nurse pints of beer (are they supposed to do that?!?) and some of the band play pool, but Pete looks hurt and upset. They say that you should never go back don't they?
We take another couple of taxis to The Al Kamara shopping area to meet up with Squirrel, Dave and Richard who have been out to the harbour. Absolutely everything that you see on sale is fake - shops proudly proclaim 'GENUINE MASTER COPIES' of every famous name on clothing and jewellery that you can think of. Some of the shop names are even spent incorrectly - either that or there's a colour out here called 'voilet' and a place called 'Aladin's Cave'. Sadly the Liverpool F. C. shop was closed, as I'd love to have seen what they had in there. As we walked around I found myself thinking of Johnny Rotten of all people - 'a cheap holiday in other people's misery', 'your future dream is a shopping scheme'... I for one have seen enough and when Chris and Mike suggest a taxi back to The Emirates Academy I jump at the chance of going with them. As we drive along the roads gradually get wider, the buildings get taller and the shops get more colourful as the skyscrapers of the promised land are looming in the middle distance. But they're not just a few miles away - they're in another universe.

Saturday 2.30 am

Third time lucky indeed - a great show and I didn't break anything. Good

Once again I found myself buying a Barzar-card-full of drinks, and I'm now sitting in my room with Bob Dylan on the iPod. He's just said something about having a 'head full of ideas that are driving me insane...' I think I know how he feels.

3.25 pm

At the end of what was undeniably a good show last night I realised that my strings were once again in a bit of a mess. I can normally do 3 or 4 theatre shows before they need changing, but that's because I generally have a spare guitar with me and so can take a bit more of a chance with things. Also we're not usually in a country where air conditioning is pretty much everywhere - not last night though, as it had either failed on stage or not been switched on. The resulting heat coupled with the return of the oil-based smoke (that'd have been a good title for a 1940s horror film wouldn't it?!?) meant that my strings were all but worn out by the end of the show. Rather than take the guitar out drinking with me (!) I decided to pick it up this morning after breakfast - I returned to the theatre to find it open but with no staff anywhere to be seen. I strolled through the auditorium into the unlocked backstage area where I retrieved my precious instrument, all the while reflecting on the fact that anybody could have done exactly the same thing. Not good frankly. I then decided to get some money from a nearby ATM - a nervous moment occurred when it told me that it was 'unable to dispense' and I feared that I might not get my card back, but fortunately this wasn't the case and I was able to get some cash from another machine.
Back here in my room I've changed my strings and did some more work on the T.V. Smith material; I've received an email from him adding a few songs to the set I was expecting so this seemed like a good chance to run through them, as well as do a bit on the Ruts D.C. stuff too. I've just made a cup of coffee. Rock 'n' Roll eh?

Sunday 10.45 am

I decided not to write anything when I got in last night, not least because I suspect that there's been enough semi-drunken rambling here in these hallowed pages already. But we once again returned to Barzar before Matt and myself sat in my room until the early hours ranting and raving about something or other. I also recall a few 'you've got to hear this' moments with the iPod (well he's got the next door room so I knew I wasn't going to wake him up!) which he gamely put up with. Good man.
It had been a good show - not a great one but certainly not a bad one either. Band members were using words like 'steady' to describe our performance which thinking about it now seems like a fair observation. A rather laid-back audience took a while to get going, and as a result so did we; that said 'Hey Bartender' is sounding excellent, and the 'Dance To The Music' section is sounding much better than it did in the first couple of shows. As I say a good show rather than a great one, but that's no bad thing. However Jayne injuring her foot after the show is definitely a bad thing - I'm not sure what happened but hope she's ok.
It's our last show tonight - have we really been here nearly a week? Amazing. It's gone so quickly. There's nothing planned today until 4 o'clock when a bus will take us and all our luggage the short distance over to the theatre; it's a 6.30 show tonight (the others have all been 8 o'clock kick-offs) before food at 9.30. We're then due to leave for the airport at midnight for the 3 am flight home. Gulp!

Monday 2.45 am

And here we are on board flight EK 007 (oh yes!) Our last show here was a bit of a weird one, with Dave being struck down with food poisoning (well that's what he thinks he's got, from a salmon quiche eaten earlier in the day) that meant that he spent much of the show backstage lying down or being sick. Meanwhile the smallest audience of the week made up for what they lacked in numbers by dancing for most of the show and making as much noise as possible.
I spent most of the day doing, well, not very much at all; that said I did rough out a blog piece on John Saxon as well as reviewing these notes and reading some of the Keith Richards autobiography 'Life' that I've been working my way through during my time here. Now we're on the plane home. It'll be good to get back.

So what of Dubai then? Well... it's a nice place to visit, but you (or to be more accurate, I) wouldn't want to live there. For a start it much too hot for a wimp like me - I think the average daytime temperature while we were there was over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and it didn't go below 70 at night. I believe it gets even hotter in the summer.
The area that we were staying and working was relatively well-to-do, as evidenced by it's close proximity to The Burj Al Arab Hotel. All well and good - but what were we really seeing? Elaborately ornate buildings that look as though they could be old (but of course they aren't) are almost an artist's impression of what Dubai 'should' look like. Well that's what they seemed to be like to me.
Compare this with our visit to the Souk districts - is that the 'real' Dubai? If it is then it's a long way from hotels with tennis courts on the roof and the World's tallest building. The contrast could hardly be greater - but there are areas of London that are just as unalike. I suppose that ultimately it's all down to opinion and how you yourself view the place. As someone who sees themselves as a left wing person I found it very hard to reconcille the sights of the Souks with the area that we were staying in or indeed the places that you pass through to go between the two places. The inequality is astonishing, although again you could say the same about London or indeed any big city. From what I read there is a dark side, with many people there bearly surviving on low wages, living many to a single room. How many people think about that while they're basking on the man-made beaches that I saw being rebuilt every night? Then again they're on holiday in a land where money can (probably) get you anything you might want so why should they be bothered?

Near the end of our stay Pete asked everyone if anybody would be coming back for a holiday next year. Much as I had enjoyed my time in Dubai, I figured that the question wasn't really aimed at me.

Cast and crew -

Matt and Mike - Jake and Elwood
Squirrel - bass
Marc - drums
Chris - keyboards
Dave - trumpet
Richard - saxophone
Tracy - vocals
Pete - tour management and vocals
Phil - sound man
Jayne - wardrobe
and your humble narrator on the electric guitar

The iPod soundtrack to my visit, in no particular order -

The Beatles - various, especially 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver'
The Sex Pistols - 'NMTB' plus b-sides, particularly after visiting the gold and spice souks
The Faces - 'A Nod's As Good As A Wink' and 'Ooh La La' plus various tracks including their version of 'The Stealer', for John Saxon
Free - various tracks, once again with John in mind
The Clash - 'London Calling'
Dr. Feelgood - mostly with Wilko Johnson on guitar, but some of the Gypie Mayo stuff too
Noel Gallagher - 'High Flying Birds'
Oasis - 'Stop The Clocks'
R.E.M. - a few tracks from 'Document', after 'Disturbance At The Heron House' came into my head one day
The Godfathers - 'Hit By Hit'
The Rolling Stones - tracks from whichever part of their career that I was reading about at the time
The Who - 'Who's Next' and more, including the classic early singles
Bob Dylan - a few tracks after a few drinks
- plus the Ruts DC and TV Smith tracks that I was learning or revising, and probably some other stuff as well.

I read 'Life' by Keith Richards, and the 'Fender Electric Guitar Bible' edition of Guitar And Bass magazine.

I wore a variety of Balcony Shirts, along with a straw hat and some very ill-advised shorts.

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