For a certain demographic, the lure of seeing a former first-division champ like Duran Duran in a small club setting – such as Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre, where they played Monday night (April 25) – is irresistible. The recent Coachella gig comes closer to associative memory: an arena pop band dropping sky-punching, sing-along choruses on a lusty, cheering throng. As much a part of the iconography as Jacko, Prince and Madonna, Duran Duran’s more Superman than Clark Kent. And how often do you get to see Supes in something the size of a phone booth?
Kept alive by an admirably stubborn creative impulse years after most of their peers withered or retired, Duran’s weathered the inevitable punchlines that come with declining commercial relevancy. By staying in recognizable form – with four-fifths of the classic lineup present and incredibly well-preserved – Duran’s still courting their original fan base, while presenting an appealing approximation of their earlier selves for newer fans to investigate. And their escapist ’80s pop has worn pretty well. Duran Duran and Rio are classic albums of some three decades’ standing now, nearly twice as old as the first Beatles records were when we first met Simon, John, Nick, Roger and Andy (think about that for a minute).
The Phoenix show afforded an engaging, 93-minute, 17-song set with spotlights trained on their earliest albums and the current, retro-styled All You Need Is Now. The modest club setting aside, the ingrained theatricality could only come from a band at ease with its populist legend.
Against a dimly lit backdrop, Nick Rhodes was first out, the sight of his tousled, blond bob eliciting the first shrieks from the anxious thirty- and fortysomething crowd. Roger Taylor (eeeeek) and John Taylor (EEEEEK!!) emerged next, joining Rhodes on the syncopated, loping “Planet Earth” groove. Game on. If you were in the middle of the Phoenix, as I was at this point, your view of the stage came with a dense row of smartphone screens trained stage right, awaiting Simon Le Bon‘s entrance. Timed to hit the mike in time for the first line anyone ever heard from Duran on record – only came outside to watch the night fall with the rain – it was perfect. Showbiz in a teacup. Superman in a phone booth. The crowd roared, fists thrust skyward, the stultifying body heat in the room dissipated in an electrolyte rush, and before you knew it, you were one of a thousand people in a packed club and Duran Duran were mere feet away, launching into “Hungry Like The Wolf.”
Now, look: “Wolf” is more than just a great pop tune with a killer chorus and one of life’s easiest sing-along do-do-do refrains. It was also the first shot across the bow as MTV overtook radio as young America’s preferred medium for product delivery in the early 1980s. Much has been made of Duran’s physical beauty and their managers’ prescience in using video to catapult their charges to pinup ubiquity. To hear that song, with Rhodes’ percolating synth textures underpinning the three Taylors’ riffs – departed guitarist Andy‘s hard rock lead, Roger’s electro-tom fills and John’s thrilling, octave-jumping disco run on the coda – is to re-engage the spirit of 1982-83 for four glorious minutes. All great bands – and some mediocre ones – have signature songs. In a career full of big hits, “Wolf” is Duran’s pinnacle.
The rest of the show was sensibly paced. Duran’s fiddled with the set list since the tour’s start, but the formula they’ve settled on is pleasing enough: four songs from the debut, three from Rio, a small clutch of later tunes and six from the new LP. From the latter set, there are indeed better options than the pedestrian “Safe (In The Heat Of The Moment)” and “Blame The Machines,” and I envy those who will get to hear them (“Too Bad You’re So Beautiful” and “The Man Who Stole A Leopard” in particular), but the frenetic “Girl Panic!” and “Being Followed” went over awfully well.
Unsurprisingly, the success of the show depended upon the delivery of the classics. Whether it was early-’80s attitudinal acrimony (a towering “Friends Of Mine”) or widescreen, explosive pop (“The Reflex”), the band were equal to the task. Roger drove the hell out of “Careless Memories” with his signature drum fills. John’s virtuoso bass patterns in “Rio” left him finger flexing at song’s end, the hard-won payoff to a challenging song played beautifully. The comparatively simple “Ordinary World,” the surprise 1993 hit that brought Duran in from their post-’80s deep freeze, benefitted from an appropriately light touch.
Ira Robbins once wrote Le Bon sings with more confidence than profound ability, and while that could be true, these were words written over 20 years ago, and it’s great to report he’s lost nothing off his top range. Duran’s best songs are very melodically active, and he works as hard as any singer this side of Jagger to make ’em fly. The stage lights caught the sweat dripping from his bare elbows while he played the pan flute solo at the end of “The Chauffeur.” (Inveterate Twitterer John Taylor would later write: “moisture drip dropping, pouring off our bodies, slicking our hands and faces. I like playing under those conditions.”)
By the time the band – including support players Dom Brown (guitar), Anna Ross (vocals) and Simon Willescroft (sax/percussion) – closed with a solo-laden, extended “Girls On Film,” the verdict was in: Duran Duran is tethered to a specific time in pop history, like most successful artists. For some, a Duran Duran concert represents a chance to revisit youth for a few sepia-tinged hours. For others, it provides the closest thing to archeology. There was an ad campaign for a cassette brand back in the day which asked, Is it live or is it Memorex? On this night, Duran Duran seemed to answer, “both.”