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DJ Snake on stage at Etihad Park at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix in 2021 Image Credit: Supplied

It was in the early hours of Saturday morning, with one of the most controversial upsets in F1 history yet to play out on the Abu Dhabi racetrack, when John Lickrish received a call from his talent manager to inform him that the main act signed on for the Yasalam concerts may not make it.

The Foo Fighters, who were signed on to close out Abu Dhabi’s F1 Grand Prix weekend, were now sitting outside a hospital in Chicago with a band member rushed from the tarmac to get medical attention. With the F1 weekend coming to a close, Lickrish and his team from Flash Entertainment had 24 hours to pull off a Hail Mary and find a replacement to take to the stage on Sunday night.

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The Foo Fighters were set to perform at the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix this year before the rock legends cancelled days before the show. Image Credit: Supplied

“It was Saturday around 2.30am and I had just come home from the day’s event when the phone rang and it was my talent manager Jason. And I thought to myself, this can’t be good,” recalled Lickrish during a chat with Gulf News. “The band was already en route to Abu Dhabi and we were worried about their transfer from the private plane they had taken to Chicago and getting them into the main terminal where they would be taking an Etihad flight.”

It took another 15 minutes before the gravity of the situation finally fawned on Lickrish. “I was in disbelief,” he revealed.

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Flash Enetrtainment had earlier brought down Rihanna to perform live in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: GN Archives

For companies such as Flash Entertainment that deal in live events, the pandemic has been a brutal two years where concerts and stage shows came to a complete halt. The UFC and the recently concluded Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix would serve as a return to normalcy and pave the way for many more such events to find its way back on calendars.

“It was probably two hours after that first call when we realised they won’t be able to make it with one member still in hospital. It was at that point that we started deplaning the crew and their baggage from the plane in Chicago,” said Lickrish.

Flash Entertainment CEO John Lickrish Image Credit: Supplied

At the time of this interview, the Flash CEO revealed the band member — whose identity remained undisclosed — was still in a hospital in Chicago.

“We started calling Los Angeles right away, reaching out to agents we knew, artists who had been touring. Obviously Kanye [West] and Drake had just done shows so they were on the list. The Rolling Stones had just done a show so we tried there. We also knew Coldplay were geared up for a show so tried there as well. We were basically looking for anyone from the rock genre who had their set up ready and could get on a plane,” he said.

The company also reached out to contacts in London and managed to get British rocker Liam Gallagher to agree to hop on to a plane. “After getting a lot of ‘nos’, we started to get a yes from people like Liam Gallagher’s team and fired another group of people to figure out the logistics to get him here,” Lickrish revealed.

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Liam Gallagher was one of the acts Flash Entertainment was trying to bring down to the UAE to fill in for The Foo Fighters Image Credit: GN Archives

“We started putting offers together because artist managers wouldn’t even discuss anything with us without having an offer in hand. Some told us they will look at that offer, others said it was impossible. When Liam Gallagher said yes, the logistics of getting his people on a plane, finding seats to get them to Abu Dhabi turned into another nightmare.”

Needless to say, neither Gallagher, nor Kanye or Drake worked out, with Martin Garrix and DJ Snake finally filling in for The Foo Fighters on Sunday night.

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Kanye West Image Credit: AP

“We know a few of the DJs on the circuit because they had asked for tickets to come to the concert on Sunday and we started to explore that option. We knew Martin Garrix as we had hosted him at a Formula One several years ago and by Sunday morning 8am we had him on board. David Guetta also wanted to play and we got all the artwork done as well but there was a conflict of interest with his contract and he had to pull out at 2.30am on Sunday morning. That’s when we got in touch with DJ Snake’s manager and had all the contracts wrapped up around 5pm on Sunday.”

This was all four hours before the DJs were to take to the concert stage.

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Chris Martin from Colplay performing on New Year's Eve in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: GN Archives

Flash Entertainment, which has worked in the industry for 14 years and has brought artists such as Rihanna, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Stormzy, and more recently, the UFC’s first-ever Fight Island Concept on Yas Island, knows a thing or two about artists falling through last minute.

In 2017, Kendrick Lamar cancelled on the Yasalam after-race concert and Travis Scott bailed on the F1 gig in 2019. “Let’s not forget Ariana Grande losing her voice just before her concert, or the time we had a technical failure with the roof leaking and a concert had to be cancelled,” said Lickrish. “Over 14 years of live events, things can happen. And I understand fans can be sceptical but there are times it is genuinely out of our hands.”

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In 2017, rapper Kendrick Lamar pulled out of the Abu Dhabi F1 after-race concert Image Credit: AFP

Another force of nature that worked against them was the pandemic grinding the live events industry to a halt these past two years, which Lickrish described as “devastating” for everyone involved.

“We’ve been lucky that we’ve got the events we got to do and our work with the tourism authority on events like the UFC, the Yas Bay Arena and the Etihad Arena. Yet, keeping the team mentally healthy and focused has been very challenging. We are lucky we managed to keep our full-time staff on for the entire time and kept them busy,” he revealed.

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Mick Jagger from The Rolling Stones peforms in Abu Dhabi Image Credit: Reuters

With live events now back in the UAE, the company has set up offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with another opening up in Riyadh as Saudi Arabia also becomes a key player to host gigs in the regions.

Despite a tough two years, Lickrish is bullish about 2022. “We want to be doing as many events as we can at the Etihad Arena and the Etihad Park. You will see a lot of diversity, a lot of international acts that will be coming through. We are looking at all kinds of genres, a few festival ideas and artists from Asia, South America, North America…”

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Boy group BTS perform at KCon Abu Dhabi 2016. Image Credit: KCon Abu Dhabi

Could that mean a K-Pop concert is likely on the horizon? “Why not? We work very closely with a lot of the big companies and agents in South Korea. We brought BTS for KCon back in 2016 when no one knew who they were. Today, they are one of the biggest to come out of the country. I won’t say who but we are in discussion with about four big K-Pop artists right now.

“We are hounding everyone to return and the success of the Formula 1 will give people a lot of confidence.”

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Irish rock band U2 Image Credit: AFP

Ask the concert maker his wishlist and Lickrish laughed. “I have never made it a secret that I hope to bring AC/DC here one day. Obviously U2 as well. I know, we have been saying U2 since 2010 and it almost happened before it didn’t because they just couldn’t fit us in for a concert date despite us meeting their technical requirement. Of course, we would love for Beyonce and Rihanna to return as well. Let’s see what 2022 has in store.”