By John Parnell
Carlos Santana's first gig in the Middle East also marked the debut of Dubai's newest outdoor venue.
Carlos Santana's first gig in the Middle East also marked the debut of Dubai's newest outdoor venue located within the emirate's Festival City precinct. John Parnell reports.
The issue of the lack of available large-scale concert venues across the GCC - and particularly in the UAE - has proved a source of derision among concert-goers and artists for some time.
However, with the creation of a string of new outdoor venues, including the new site located at Dubai Festival City (DFC) and the long-mooted Al Sahra Desert Resort concert ground, the situation is at last being addressed.
Last month's Santana concert not only marked the Latin strummer's local debut, but also the first outing for the DFC venue.
There was no honeymoon period for staff at the shopping and hotel complex, with a capacity crowd of 15,000 there to witness the show.
Logistical issues such as ample parking and traffic flow may not seem very rock ‘n' roll, but they can go a long way to determining the overall success of an event.
Punters are less likely to fork out their hard-earned for a gig at a venue that presents one logistical headache after another. The Dubai Autodrome, for example, has not hosted a major concert event since Shakira's gig last year, which was marred by serious traffic congestion before, during and after the show.
Santana production manager Nigel Holborough says that despite initial concerns about the suitability of the Festival City venue for staging large-scale events, the site passed the Santana challenge with flying colours.
"The Festival City site is basically the attached shopping centre's overflow car park plus another area which is used as a landing strip for helicopter tours," he says. "It's just a large, tarmac-covered space with a slight incline. In many ways, it makes for a more ideal venue than other outdoor sites in Dubai which have some infrastructure in place, such as the grass-covered Dubai Media City (DMC) amphitheatre.
"The venue at DMC presents a number of logistical challenges, particularly in regards to loading equipment in and out.
"The site is also inflexible as it dictates one fixed position for the stage and the audience. Parking is also an issue at DMC.
"The advantage of the DFC site it is essentially a blank canvas for us to work with. It also has decent roads and transport infrastructure which can handle heavy traffic. It's vicinity to the Festival shopping centre also provides benefits in terms of catering to punters before and after the show. This also has a tendency to lighten traffic loads after a gig. Several shops stayed open late after the Santana gig specifically to attract concert-goers.
Following the success of the Santana gig, the DFC site has been confirmed as the venue for this month's Desert Rock Festival.
Holborough believes the site will only have to be slightly modified to cope with the multi-day event.
"It is a very versatile space. For the Santana gig, we installed a large grandstand and two small elevated VIP areas. However, Desert Rock, from my understanding, will be an all-standing show," he says.
"The production area for Santana was also comparatively smaller to what we can expect to see at Desert Rock, given that it's a two-day event with multiple acts, which will also require a backstage village and production offices. The site is flexible enough to allow for these additions.
Holborough points out that the site plan for Santana included a large free flow area surrounding the main arena, providing point-of-sale locations for merchandise and food and beverage stalls.
He says that removing this area would enable organisers to cater to even larger audiences in the future.
"I think you could push the capacity of the site to 20,000 or even 25,000," he says. "Or you could have a much larger backstage area and still cater to an audience of 15,000. That's the beauty of working with a simple, flat site.
The DFC complex includes many commercial buildings and hotels with glass surfaces. The site itself and the position of the stage, however, meant that the PA was directed away from this area toward the grandstand at the rear of the arena.
"The grassed amphitheatre at DMC is ideal in that it ensures strong acoustic properties," says Holborough.
While the DFC venue is a completely different configuration, we didn't really encounter any major acoustic issues.
John Britto, production manager for Santana sound and lighting equipment supplier SLS Productions, says the glass office towers that surround the DMC amphitheatre can pose an acoustic challenge in their own right.
"There is a greater risk with noise bouncing around at DMC than there is at Festival City. The DFC site allows the sound to really travel and I think with more delay stacks the venue could accommodate a much larger audience. Perhaps up to 50,000 punters.
Britto describes the DFC site as the "best outdoor venue in the UAE", even despite its lack of permanent technical infrastructure supporting major events.
SLS supplied its Vertec line array system for the Santana concert, including all 24 of its recently purchased VT 4889 boxes.
The concert was the first of Santana's Live Your Light world tour.
Touring sound engineer Rob Mailman utilised a Midas XL-4/48 desk and a Midas XL-3/16 EQ for mixing duties.
The touring freight also included, naturally, the full backline as well as the entire stage monitoring set-up.
Lighting infrastructure, including fixtures, was specified prior to the tour. SLS sourced the entire rig, which included a total of 219 fixtures, entirely from its own stock inventory, based in Dubai.
With Desert Rock following hot on the heels of the Santana concert, DFC will likely further enhance its reputation as the city's hottest new outdoor venue.
In the long-term, it has the potential to become a landmark venue in Dubai, providing a long sought-after alternative for promoters looking to stage large-scale concerts in the emirate.