Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: Duran Duran honors its heroes, but doesn't rely on nostalgia

In the shadow of House Bill 2, which has seen touring acts opposed to North Carolina’s recent legislation opting to cancel NC shows or play them as benefits or forms of protest, Duran Duran played its scheduled show at PNC Music Pavilion Saturday. Frontman Simon LeBon announced early on that it would be a mostly politics free night. It wasn’t until the encore that he encouraged concert goers to sign the Equality NC petition to demand the repeal of HB2. The petition will be presented to the general assembly on April 25.

Before that moment Duran Duran simultaneously honored its dance and rock heroes and played up its current album “Paper Gods.” The latter meant, as bassist John Taylor indicated in his interview with The Observer a few weeks ago, that some hits would be sacrificed (that left “Union of the Snake,” “The Reflex,” “Skin Trade” and the minor late `90’s hit “Electric Barbarella” out of the set).

The theme of coming full circle kicked off when Nile Rodgers and Chic jump-started the party as the support act. The uber-producer and guitarist (who pops up doing both on “Paper Gods”) not only led his group through its own disco-era hits, but touched on some of the biggest songs he produced for other artists. Rodgers instructed NC to sing louder than crowds in other states during Diana Ross’ "I’m Coming Out." The crowd erupted. "I'm Coming Out" kicked off a medley that included “Upside Down” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” The group later launched into David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” to honor another artist Rodgers worked with.

It ended its set with Chic’s biggest hits “Le Freak” and “Good Times.” For the latter around 30 fans, who were pulled from the audience based on their enthusiasm and dance skills, lined up with the band to help put an exclamation point on the set.

Chic may have been a support act, but its finale was met with a wave of screams  that could rival those at a Taylor Swift or boy band concert (imagine a giant flock of birds from “The Birds” coming toward you).

In its youth Duran Duran were a “Tiger Beat” pin-up favorite, but its audience is largely forty and over now (although its crowd Saturday started at about age 6).

Original members LeBon, Taylor, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor (now having been back in the band longer than he was the first time around) took the stage to the title track of its latest album “Paper Gods” backed by a handful of additional musicians and two very active leather-clad backup singers who added soulful power to “Come Undone” and “Danceophobia.”  

It front-loaded the set with crowd-pleasers “Wild Boys,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and “View to a Kill” (complete with a bloody, risqué video reminiscent of the banned “Girls on Film”) before zipping back into new material with “Last Night in the City.” There wasn’t really a lull when the group jumped into recent material, which is normally reserved for beer runs and bathroom breaks. The 40-something women in front of us knew all the words to the new songs too.

Rodgers, having changed from white to a baby pink jacket and beret, joined Duran for “Notorious” and 2015’s “Pressure Off.” It was here that the group’s joy – especially evident in the expressions and body language of Taylor and LeBon – swelled. It took that momentum into “I Don’t Want Your Love” and its cover of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s “White Lines,” which together may have weirdly been the performance’s highlight due to the band’s energy.

Like Chic, Duran Duran paid tribute to Bowie seguing into “Space Oddity” via “Planet Earth” with a photo of `70s Bowie projected behind it.

LeBon, who struggled slightly during “View,” had stretched his vocal chords enough throughout the set to tackle the high notes on “Ordinary World” with ease. 

He and Taylor sported actual Duran Duran graphic tour t-shirts with black light catching trousers, while Rhodes and Roger Taylor chose more subdued black suit pieces with sparkles.

It ended the set “Girls on Film,” which wasn’t an exact replica of the old single, but a slightly redesigned version.

LeBon began the encore with his anti-HB2 speech, encouraging Carolinians to sign the online petition. Given that Duran Duran’s music – like a lot of the acts that emerged from early MTV (Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna) – has never been confined by color, gender, or any other lines, his plea was fitting as was the choice of “Save a Prayer.”

But the seriousness was short-lived as it ended the set with “Rio” beneath the image of that first album cover. With references to its biggest `80s hits, influences like Chic and Bowie, its withstanding non-discrimination message, and a heavy portion of the set devoted to newer material, it was a well-rounded show that truly encompassed who Duran Duran was and is. Now if only it could have fit in a few more oldies.