Duran Duran Manages to Sidestep Nostalgia while Dusting off Hits in Phoenix

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There's a reason Duran Duran can still headline a venue as massive as Gila River Arena decades down the road from "Rio" when so many of the best of their contemporaries find themselves reduced to doing package tours on the nostalgia circuit.

Sure, they had more hits than most. But more importantly, they've managed to stay relevant by constantly evolving. As the title of one recent album framed it, "All You Need Is Now."

When I spoke to John Taylor in May, he said, "We’re not a blues band. We’re a modern band, a modern pop-rock band with a contemporary aesthetic. And that’s always been our thing."

Staying on the cutting edge

Of course, it helps that part of their aesthetic all along involved embracing dance grooves and dance culture, topping the charts in the summer of 1984 with a cutting-edge remix of "The Reflex" by the great Nile Rodgers, who opened Wednesday's show with Chic and came back out to join them on "Notorious" and "Pressure Off."

And speaking of the cutting edge, they set the the tone for Wednesday's concert with the futuristic a cappella intro to the title track of last year's "Paper Gods," which, as I've previously noted, sounds a bit like David Bowie singing doo-wop in Berlin.

They returned to "Paper Gods" on more than one occasion, peppering the set with such obvious highlights of an album well worth checking out as "Last Night in the City," "What Are the Chances" and "Pressure Off." And that still left plenty of time for dusting off the greatest hits, from "Girls on Film," which closed the proper set, to "(Reach Up for the) Sunrise," which took the New Wave veterans to the top of Billboard's dance charts in 2004.

They even played their debut single, "Planet Earth," seamlessly segueing into a heartfelt David Bowie tribute with "for here, am I sitting in a tin" as an early photo of the legend gazed upon us from the screen behind them. A more surprising cover was "White Lines (Don't Do It)," a pioneering hip-hop single by Grandmaster Melle Mel that they managed to reinvent as something that would fit right in if played after "I Don't Want Your Love."

A positively gorgeous 'Ordinary World'

Simon Le Bon was in excellent voice throughout, from his soulful performance of "Paper Gods" to "The Wild Boys" and a positively gorgeous "Ordinary World," an early '90s hit that may have been the highlight of the set. If he seemed a bit raspy at times, that only added to the soulful quality of his performance.

The other founding members, drummer Roger Taylor and John Taylor (one of rock's more underrated bassists) were in brilliant form throughout, their command of the groove shining through on the funkier tracks, from "I Don't Want Your Love" to "Pressure Off."

There was supposed to be another founding member of Duran Duran on stage, but keyboardist Nick Rhodes has left the tour to tend to "urgent family matters," his seat behind the keyboards temporarily filled by MNDR, who did an admirable job.

Fleshing out the sound were longtime touring guitarist Dominic Brown, saxophonist Simon Willescroft and the soulful backing vocals of Anna Ross and Jessie Wagner.

After bringing the proper set to a triumphant close with "Girls on Film," they returned to play a three-song encore drawn entirely from "Rio," beginning with one of the album's more experimental tracks, "The Chauffeur."

That was followed by a long, impassioned speech about world affairs from Le Bon.

"In this world of fear and terror and violence, when every day there seems to be either a terrorist attack or an atrocity, a shooting at a nightclub, stuff that really, really frightens us deeply inside and makes us unhappy," he said, "it’s up to people like us not to give into the fear. We have to stand up. We have to carry on with our lives in the face of this s—t. Because we know that good will overcome evil and we need to spread the message."

Music, Le Bon continued, is "something which brings people together. Music is something which crosses the barriers of sex, of race, of religion of age. Music is something which makes people feel good about themselves." And with that, he dedicated "Save a Prayer" to "the people who will not give in, people who will carry on the fight and will not give up hope because we believe in goodness."

What followed was a truly heartfelt and anthemic version of the song, with the audience's cellphones doing what their lighters may have done in 1982.

That left "Rio" as the perfect way to say goodnight, a final singalong as fans bounced beach balls overhead and the Taylor rocked that timeless groove.

Of course, if timeless grooves are what you're after, you'd have done well to be there in time for the opening set by Chic featuring Nile Rodgers, as they're being billed. It was a brilliant survey of the Rodgers catalog brought to life by an awe-inspiring collection of players and two very soulful women on lead vocals – Kimberly Davis and Folami Ankoanda.

And if the spotlight had a way of drifting back to Rodgers' own distinctive brand of funk guitar, is that really a problem? Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

Having set the tone with three of Chic's most timeless hits -- "Everybody Dance," "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and "I Want Your Love" (which featured an amazing trumpet solo as well as one of Davis' most chill-inducing vocals of the night), they turned their attention to the songs he's written and produced for other artists, starting with Diana Ross.

"I'm Coming Out" and "Upside Down" gave way to Sister Sledge's "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family," Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and David Bowie's "Let's Dance" (or "one of the funkiest songs of our lifetime," as Rodgers rightly called it).

The only way to follow all those massive hits, of course, was with the biggest, most enduring hits at Chic's disposal, which is what they reached for -- "Le Freak" and the seminal "Good Times," which built to a spirited climax with Rodgers laying down the rap from another seminal recording, the "Good Times"-sampling hip-hop classic, "Rapper's Delight."

I realized, watching Rodgers' set, that I don't think I've ever used the word "slick" as a compliment, preferring "raw" and "edgy" as aesthetic choices. But Rodgers and his bandmates made as strong a case for "slick" as I have ever witnessed as they effortlessly blurred whatever lines you'd care to draw between disco and funk.

Adding Chic to the lineup was a brilliant move that got the party started early and underscored Duran Duran's connection to dance culture. It made perfect sense on paper and in practice. And it kind of left me wondering how neither act has yet to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Setlist

Paper Gods

The Wild Boys

Hungry Like the Wolf

A View to a Kill

Come Undone

Last Night in the City

What Are the Chances?

Notorious

Pressure Off

Planet Earth / Space Oddity

Ordinary World

I Don't Want Your Love

White Lines (Don't Do It)

(Reach Up for the) Sunrise / New Moon on Monday

The Reflex

Girls on Film

Encore

The Chauffer

Save a Prayer

Rio

Courtesy Arizona Republic. Click for photos

each the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Twitter.com/EdMasley.

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