Behind the scenes at Sandance in Dubai

We take an exclusive backstage tour at the iconic beach festival

US pop-rockers The Fray psych themselves up before taking to the stage
US pop-rockers The Fray psych themselves up before taking to the stage
Backstage in Matt Kearney’s dressing room
Backstage in Matt Kearney’s dressing room
Matt shares his pre-show cartoon
Matt shares his pre-show cartoon
Krafty Kuts talks us through his set list
Krafty Kuts talks us through his set list
Frankie Knuckles fresh off stage
Frankie Knuckles fresh off stage
Snoop Lion
Snoop Lion

Even at the biggest gigs, going backstage is a far cry from the glamorous experience you might expect. From what we’ve seen, you’re more likely to be exchanging pleasantries with stage riggers than hobnobbing with A-listers, and you’ll probably be munching egg sandwiches rather than popping corks. But Time Out doesn’t miss an opportunity to snoop around where others daren’t venture, and we weren’t going to turn down an invite to go backstage at the last Sandance event, on October 12.

So here we are, just before sunset, stumbling through into Sandance’s inner sanctum. We say ‘stumbling’ not because we’re weary, but because we haven’t found a real backstage entrance – anyone important enough to be there just goes on stage and off again after being brought direct from the hotel. We, however, have to clamber round barriers, over mountains of sand and ragged cabling, before arriving at the patch of beach that constitutes the backstage area of Sandance. We’ve made it.

At first glance, it’s nicer than expected – a handful of Portakabins are lined up facing the waves, flanked by sofas and with a private bar – but it’s a far cry from the lavishness you’d expect from neighbouring Atlantis.

Our reverie is interrupted when singer-songwriter Matt Kearney idles off stage, fresh from closing the now-distinct sundown slot. Despite having spent the best part of a week in Dubai, the US country-folk star still seems bewildered by the place, and his first show in the Middle East. ‘I have no idea how long we’ve been here. What day is it today?’ he begins. ‘It’s crazy, it’s really, really interesting – so opulent, so over the top… I love it.’

With a can of Red Bull in front of him (a remnant of his pre-show preparation, apparently), Kearney shows us how he spends his time backstage – drawing kooky cartoons, inspired by recent activities. ‘We went to the waterpark today, so that explains the dolphins,’ he says, pointing at one. For a man more audio than visual, we’re impressed by his talent with a marker pen.

Ellie Goulding to perform at Sandance on New Year's Eve

But how does he get fired up for the stage? Dancing, apparently. ‘I do a bunch of really dumb vocal warm ups, and if that doesn’t work, I break out the Running Man. That’s when I know it’s time to go on.’ But there’s none of the post-show rock’n’roll shenanigans you might expect. ‘You walk off the stage and all the adrenaline leaves your body. People are supposed to go party, but I’m ready to watch an episode of Breaking Bad.’

In a flash The Fray arrive, scooting in on a string of golf buggies, fresh from their suites at Atlantis. Kearney wanders over for a chat with lead singer Isaac Slade; the two shared a bill on an earlier tour, and seem to be good friends. Meanwhile the rest of the band are spread out on sofas, supping drinks and watching the waves off the Palm Jumeirah.

The very pale, very American group look somewhat out of place on Sandance’s gleaming beach. It’s a sign of how far the festival has come. Since an inaugural event in October 2010, which attracted about 6,000 revellers to hear DJs Armand Van Helden and Chicane, Sandance has nearly doubled in size. A corner was turned in November last year when promoters scheduled their first full rock band – The Script – which heralded the beginning of the Sandance format we’ve come to know and love: a chilled sunset act, a rock band after dark, and an urban pop act leading into at least one major international DJ (slots that will be filled by Newton Faulkner, Stereophonics, Labrinth and Benny Benassi respectively at this week’s event, on Friday November 9).

We wander over to Slade and introduce ourselves: the star is polite but quickly directs us to his tour manager for photo requests. However, the band’s backstage rider list, pasted to the dressing room door, reveals a lot more than the taciturn lead singer: we can now tell you The Fray’s pre-show ritual (and that of their crew) may include hummus, up to eight different varieties of soft drink, two brands of hop beverage, fresh fruit, salsa (locally sourced, ‘if possible’), almonds, three bottles of short drink, sugar-free gum, crackers (but not Ritz, specifically), and, er, hand sanitiser. Rock’n’roll.

As the band gather for a touching pre-show huddle, it would be easy to miss the unassuming figure of Frankie Knuckles inching down the stage steps on crutches, presumably die to a previous DJing accident. It’s entertaining to watch the local Dubai DJs – who, just moments ago, were posturing coolly at the bar – trying to keep their composure in front of the legendary house pioneer. Despite his towering size, Knuckles comes across as shy and warm, graciously taking praise with a smile. But at 57 years of age, and mobility issues to contend with, he’s understandably eager to be whisked off in his buggy back to Atlantis.

As The Fray swagger onto the stage, a sudden calm settles around the backstage area. The local DJs resume their posturing, and we start to hear whispers about the soon-to-be-announced next event. But it’s not long before a new energy permeates the space, although this time it comes from just one man: Krafty Kuts. The UK breakbeat DJ is wired with excitement, a ball of energy enveloping the area with a nervous charisma. Ushering us into his dressing room, he launches into a rapid-fire monologue, which takes in his pre-show ritual, his fear of festivals and his thoughts on the other acts on the bill.

‘I’m in my own little world, I’m impossible to talk to,’ he exclaims in a manner that gives the opposite impression. ‘When you play these kinds of festivals you have to be totally focused. You can’t be [partying] and doing crazy things before you go on. You absorb the crowd; you tap into where they are musically.’

He shows off his set list – containing everything from Nirvana to Skrillex – grumbling that he’ll have to cut a few tunes because the event is running late. The only time his machine-gun monologue ceases is when we ask about opening for Dizzee Rascal. ‘I’ve played with him loads of times. When he plays “Bonkers” the place is going to go…’ he looks around, struggling for a word that’s not ‘bonkers’. ‘B-b-b-b… ballistic.’ And then, after proclaiming headliner DJ Fresh’s latest album is ‘the best dance album I’ve ever heard’, he’s off, rushing onto the stage with his CD wallet in hand and the same desperate energy with which he arrived.

Krafty’s one-man whirlwind of charisma jars with the hype that comes with Dizzee Rascal’s arrival backstage. Long before the Brit grime artist shows his face, an entourage rolls up, standing arms crossed in front of the singer’s dressing room. When the star is finally shuttled into the area, there’s a blink-and-you-miss-him moment before Rascal disappears into his cabin. His team tell us flatly that Dizzee ‘needs to focus’ pre-show. It’s a very different reception to some of the musicians we met backstage, but that’s the nature of Sandance; to bring together seemingly irrevocable artists of different genres, nationalities and dispositions, and somehow make the event sing.

As we head back out to join the hordes and party, some words from Matt Kearney a few hours earlier linger in our memory. ‘I saw the line-up and I thought this could either go really well, or terribly wrong. But it was amazing. It’s a really unique festival – I’ve never played anything like it. Someone just has to send the invite and I’ll be back again.’ We know we will too.

Sandance tickets
This week’s Sandance – starring Welsh rockers Stereophonics, Italian superstar DJ Benny Benassi, hip Londoner Labrinth, electronica duo Leftfield and Brit acoustic singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner – takes place at Atlantis The Palm’s Sandance Beach.
Friday November 9, 2pm-2am. Dhs275-450,

Sandance in numbers
• Nine events so far
• 70 acts
• 108 hours of music
• 90,000 people
• 20 people to construct the stage
• Six lighting men
• Four stage hands
• Six people to shoot the live video

Three more forthcoming festivals…

A host of ’90s stars, including Go West, Haddaway, No Mercy, Culture Beat, Snap! and Ace of Base’s Jenny Berggren, join forces to play this one-day fest. See page 97 for more.
Dhs275. 5pm, Friday November 16. Emirates Golf Club,

Atelier – New Year’s Eve
As announced at Atelier/Festival last month, reggae artist Snoop Lion (formerly rapper Snoop Dogg) will play another Atelier gig at Meydan on NYE. Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz and Faithless are also confirmed to play, despite reports that both have split up. Keep an eye on Time Out for more details.

Sandance NYE
We’re expecting Sandance to eschew its mix of dance, rock and acoustic acts for its December 31 line-up, and instead plump for a bill of major international DJs – last year’s NYE event attracted Roger Sanchez, Basement Jaxx and Above & Beyond (who are playing a one-off pre-Sandance gig this week, on Sandance Beach on Thursday November 8). Keep an eye on Time Out for details.

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