After 30 years, Duran Duran can still ‘blow away’

by Ryan Snyder

The ’80s is to excess as MTV is to beautiful people as Duran Duran is to the ’80s. Right there at the ouroboros of pop culture during the dawn of music on television were the godfathers of glamwave, though you couldn’t tell if they were the tail or the teeth at the time. Constantly toeing the line between being lady-killing superstars and mockery fodder for the gents trying to get at those ladies, Duran Duran have locked down the best of both 30 years later. Their Tuesday night sell-out at the Durham performing Arts Center was an animal house of nostalgia, the screaming teenage girls having matured into a brunch in the morning, prowl in the evening cougerati known more commonly as Duranies. The gents, well, the motives are the same, but dance moves are sincere.

No one really saw it coming, but Duran Duran is experiencing a renaissance of sorts in recent years. It began with the release of their 2010 album All You Need Is Now, a Mark Ronson-produced gem that’s easily their best since The Wedding Album. It fueled an epic 20-month march around the world that included a headlining stop at Coachella and a spotlight in the London Olympics opening ceremony. Durham was just another capacity crowd on Tuesday, but Duran Duran are no mere nostalgia act. Five cuts from the new album mingled with a derecho of ear candy that spanned nearly every major hit a novice Duranie could hope for, from the funky future disco of “Planet Earth” to the pensive synth ballad “Save A Prayer.”

To some, the pull to the actual players was stronger than the songs themselves; each original member had their own sect. There was one for the dashing rake John Taylor, whose funky plucks and pops prompted one fan to come wielding a neon sign that read “PLAY THAT FU*KING BASS JOHN”. It must’ve actually been a thing, because the near-sellout crowd loudly took up that mantra later during his spotlight solo. Simon Le Bon, whose practiced apathy is central to the band’s libertine cool, possessed a flawless voice and completely ordinary dance moves that nonetheless drove the women mad every time he delivered one of his telegraphed spins. The ever stoic Nick Rhodes, whose combination of ailments and fatigue has forced the cancellation of at least two dates this week, quietly executed pop genius for each of the 19 songs the band played. Roger Taylor rounded them out, the strong, silent type who was a dance machine behind the kit (save for his solo, which he pounded out with Carmine Appice-like brutish abandon).

The further into the show they got, the more they seemed to acknowledge the several generations of fans present. “Come Undone” was pulled from that time when their resuscitated electropop had to complete with the sounds of Seattle, and to an extent won. They gave it the most restrained treatment of any, sheathing the vocals of Le Bon and backup singer Anna Ross in the same submerged-envelope effect as the studio version. Rather than having Taylor pound out the famous Soul Searchers break it samples (see also: “Paid In Full”) DJ extraordinaire Rhodes queued it from his synth stack.

Duran Duran went ever deeper into their love of ’80s hip hop (and, probably, cocaine) by making their cover of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s classic joint “White Lines” a staple of their live shows, and the absolute summit of this particular one, particularly paired with “Notorious.” Its original appearance on their profoundly flawed 1995 tribute compilation Thank You notwithstanding, it’s a musical mêlée when performed live. Le Bon is not a skilled rapper by any means, nor does he pretend to be, but it’s clear that when he shouts “It’s hard as hell to fight it/ Don’t buy it!” he’s coming from an equally earnest place as when he chants “Cane! Sugar!” deferentially.

But 30 years has taught Duran Duran better than that. It’s also taught them to laugh at themselves to a degree. They teased Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” in the middle of “Wild Boys,” because who hasn’t missed that distinction? The show ended with odes to their muses — “Girls On Film” and their best, “Rio,” — appropriately, as they suggested in “Notorious.” The girls keep the secrets; the boys make the noise.