Birmingham, England was not a glamorous place in the 1980s. The decline of industry in the once prosperous city had led to unemployment, unrest and bad vibes. The city has given us the mighty Move, Black Sabbath, and UB40, but few associate it with yacht-racing and half-naked jungle chase scenes. Somehow, Duran Duran with its fantasies of louche living in exotic locales and marriage of funk, New Wave and indulgence emerged from that haze of decline and neglect, to take the role left by art rock sophisticates Roxy Music and disco hitmakers Chic. It even broke through to America via MTV. So now, with a not so bright future and present before the regular folk of the modern world, is it any wonder that the glam pop outfit is once again on the rise? Of course, there is a successful Mark Ronson-produced All You Need is Now album backed by the almost all-original line-up (guitarist Andy Taylor returned to, then left the fold a few years ago) giving the oft-critically dismissed band a dose of cred that few '80s acts can muster. Also, I tend to think there is a darkness that lurks in the band's pop music that has helped it stand up in the long haul. That darkness isn't imagined, frontman Simon Le Bon is an artist intellectual that has a bitter streak from years of not being taken seriously. A few years ago, the band scrapped a more cimmerian effort influenced by contemporary events called Reportage that would have thrown fans for a loop.
So what we got last night at the Chicago Theatre was the cathartic, charismatic and only a little nostalgic Duran Duran, in a set full of plastic, but fantastic New Wave pop tunes and atmospheric modern rockers executed with the kind of confidence and panache that comes from hard work or making deals with the devil. With Le Bon looking probably better than he ever has (more tan and fit than the pale and soft Le Bon of the early '80s) and John Taylor looking like an Anime avatar come to life (long limbs and famous cheekbones that made him a heartthrob for your sister), the Durans looked the part, sporting slick and shiny clothing that gave them each a lounge lizard vibe. The band's deep reservoir of cool allowed it some wiggle room—John Taylor hyped the live twitter stream on screen and admitted his own twitter addiction.
With touring guitarist and co-writer Dom Brown, a glamazon back-up singer named Anna and a red-haired percussionist, Le Bon, two Taylors and Nick Rhodes burned through a well-balanced set that never leaned too hard on ancient history. Incorporating fresher material like "All You Need is Now" and "Blame the Machines" with ingrained hits "The Reflex" and "Is There Something I Should Know?" and neglected fan favorites such as "Careless Memory," the band made a case for its mid-period and recent output. Admittedly, I'm not spinning any '90s Duran Duran discs at home, but last night I wondered if I shouldn't give them another try. The likes of "Ordinary World" were pulled off with class, Le Bon's voice sounding more than up to the task and Brown's guitar simmering on the epic solo. Outside of perhaps "Leave a Light On" which features Le Bon on rhythm guitar, there wasn't much slack in the set. The newer number like "Girl Panic!" seemed to fit right in, buoyed by a solid rhythm section of Taylors that's never gotten its due from the music establishment.
As Mondrian-inspired videos streamed behind the outfit, it closed out the regular set with an extended "Notorious," "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Reach up for the Sunrise." Returning for "Wild Boys" and a bit of Frankie's "Relax" before a "Rio."
It was fashionable at one time to cite Duran Duran as modern music's lightweights, but we hadn't experienced the likes of the Black Eyed Peas at that point. If Duran Duran has had a weakness over the years, it has been that it was all too ready to believe that it was innocuous or tried to hard to be dangerous. What we learned last night—amid Le Bon's between song indictment of Bush/Blair as "war criminals"—is that Duran Duran is at its best when it combines that effortless pleasure and a taste for the risqué, teasing out our decadence and playing up the complications of overindulgence.
Duran Duran set list, via setlist.fm
Before the Rain Planet Earth A View to a Kill All You Need Is Now Blame the Machines Come Undone Safe The Reflex The Man Who Stole A Leopard Girl Panic! Is There Something I Should Know? Tiger Tiger Careless Memories Leave A Light On Ordinary World Notorious Hungry Like the Wolf (Reach Up for the) Sunrise Encore: Wild Boys/Relax (Don't Do It) Rio