It’s always a struggle for veteran artists to stay relevant.
Some, such as Billy Joel, just give up and contentedly play the well-worn nuggets to sold-out arenas. Others, such as Elton John and Paul McCartney, make it their mission to not only stay fresh, but keep creating.
Duran Duran, now 30-plus years into a career that has weathered more drama than a political debate, has always taken the second path to mixed results (“Pop Trash,” blech. “All You Need is Now,” aces).
Their 14th studio album, “Paper Gods,” arrived in September and is arguably one of the sturdiest of their career.
Why not, then, support it with a major arena tour, something Duran Duran hasn’t done regularly in the U.S. since the early ‘90s? Indeed, their Friday night Philips Arena concert – a packed lower bowl of about 10,000 -- was the band’s first arena appearance in Atlanta since 1984.
A literally thunderous start welcomed the core four – singer Simon Le Bon, bassist John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes – as well as longtime touring guitarist Dominic Brown to the stage as they launched into the squiggly march of the album’s title track.
An evocative video of a barren, snow-covered forest and black crows was the first of numerous intriguing videos that played behind the band throughout their nearly two-hour set, an immediate reminder of the synchronicity that has existed between their audio and visual worlds.
Duran Duran dropped five new tracks into their fulfilling set list, but made sure to gratify the dedicated Duranies with robust renditions of their most familiar songs.
Red and yellow lights crisscrossed the stage frenetically during “Wild Boys” and the actual James Bond opening ushered in the slinky “A View to a Kill.”
That song has never been Le Bon’s strongest moment as a vocalist and he strained to hit the high notes, but quickly recovered for the seductive “Come Undone,” which he prefaced with an amusing rambling about sex.
The clubby new “Last Night in the City” and catchy funk-popper “Pressure Off” ( sorry, no Janelle Monae cameo ) epitomized Duran Duran’s ability to take the current temperature of the room and adapt their classic sound to the present.
The band was joined by Chic leader Nile Rodgers (also the show’s openers – more on them in a bit), and, as Le Bon slung an arm around the legendary musician, he reminded the crowd of their 32-year history together.
Naturally, Rodgers accompanied Duran Duran on “Notorious” – he produced the 1986 album of the same name and played guitar on the recorded version – and it sounded record-perfect with a blend of John Taylor’s plucked bass lines and Roger Taylor’s fat groove. It also inspired Le Bon to break out his signature dance moves, which are always a combination of goofy and endearing.
Other highlights included a spunky version of “Planet Earth” that was wrapped around a tribute to David Bowie with a piece of “Space Oddity” (in our recent interview, John Taylor spoke extensively about Bowie’s influence on the band ) and the gorgeous “Ordinary World,” which hasn’t lost a smidgen of its pensiveness and was highlighted by Le Bon nailing the coda with prayer-like tranquility.
But a Duran Duran show isn’t truly fulfilling unless it includes the band’s exhilarating cover of the Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel classic, “White Lines.” Their Friday night performance was a shot of adrenaline to the heart and a visual whirlwind of spastic video and lighting.
Good for them for breaking out the prescient “Too Much Information,” a minor club hit in 1993 that is all the more relevant today, and for rewarding the faithful with a slice of “New Moon on Monday.”
While Le Bon didn’t talk much throughout the show – and with its brisk pace and rampant multimedia, gabbing wasn’t really needed – but he dedicated the lighter-happy “Save a Prayer” to Prince, who fell ill on his return to Minneapolis Friday morning following his Atlanta concerts.
Not many bands can claim to be at the top of their live game this deep into their career, but Duran Duran continues to prove it’s possible.
As for openers Chic, that this band still hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is yet another head scratcher as far as that organization is concerned.
But at least music lovers appreciate them.
The Philips Arena crowd was a bit thin when Chic – six players, two backup singers and the incomparable Rodgers – opened with the similarly themed head-nodders “Everybody Dance” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.”
This band perfected disco-funk in the ‘70s and their sound is equally taut today.
Powered by Rodgers’ distinctive liquid-jangle guitar, Chic clearly enticed a lot of concourse dwellers to head into the arena, because halfway through their hour-long set, the venue was packed with fans pumping fists to that staple of everyone’s life, “We are Family.”
While Rodgers is known to the younger generation for his Grammy-winning collaboration with Daft Punk – an assignment that followed his dire cancer diagnosis and subsequent recovery five years ago – his is one of the most extensive resumes in modern music.
Chic, dressed in white suits except for singers Kimberly Davis and Atlanta’s Folami Ankoanda, schooled the audience with a run through some of Rodgers’ greatest hits as a producer and/or writer.
Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down,” Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” and a sinewy take on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (sung in a silken tone by drummer Ralph Rolle) were melded into a set that also included Chic’s groove-fest, “I Want Your Love” and the Chic-iest of Chic songs, “Good Times.”
It’s a cliché to note that Rodgers is a national treasure, but his contributions to music are truly remarkable. Those in attendance should feel privileged that they were able to witness his musical muscle in live.
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