Duran Duran Still in Top Form at Impressive L.A. Gig

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When Duran Duran appeared on the third day of Coachella in April, the band turned in a tight, transcendent performance that proved all the cynics wrong (you know, the ones who sniped about them belonging on a festival bill alongside Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, the Strokes, PJ Harvey and so forth). Even bassist John Taylor (above, left) later cited the gig as a career highlight.

But a month later frontman Simon Le Bon (right) lost his voice during a show in Cannes, and the group’s summer European tour had to be scuttled while doctors determined the problem. He went through vocal therapy, learned better techniques and posture – and Duran Duran’s North American tour of large venues got underway last week, arriving Tuesday night at Nokia Theatre.

The band’s 13th studio effort – All You Need Is Now, produced by Mark Ronson – is among the British synth-pop vets’ sharpest and best-received albums to date. Ronson, the innovator known for his work with the late Amy Winehouse as well as soul-steeped revamps of the Smiths and Dylan, among others, sought a return to Duran Duran’s avant-garde spirit of the early ’80s.

He definitely succeeded. The title track went to No. 1 on the iTunes singles chart in 15 countries last December, followed by the digital and eventual physical CD release of Now. Why it hasn’t sold like gangbusters is baffling. Maybe the coming music video for “Girl Panic!” – helmed by award-winning director Jonas Akerlund (known for Lady Gaga, U2 and Madonna clips) and featuring former supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Helena Christensen and Yasmin Le Bon – will help refocus the spotlight on the group.

In Los Angeles, the original four members – including keyboardist Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor, along with guitarist Dom Brown and three auxiliary musicians – packed Nokia, delivering an impressive 100-minute set filled with a generous dose of mostly upbeat hits, a stellar chunk from the new album and a couple surprises.

Taking the stage to the orchestral “Return to Now,” the band got off to a highly dramatic start with the regal ballad “Before the Rain” – a risky move, but it worked. An extended drum intro to “Planet Earth” built excitement as the audience stood and females shrieked upon the first close-ups of bassist Taylor on the big screens.

The first test of Le Bon’s current stamina was on the James Bond film theme “A View to a Kill,” restored to its original live arrangement following the near-operatic version delivered at Coachella. It’s a selection that can be difficult even on good days, but the vocalist managed just fine; the same circumstances held true on “Ordinary World” toward the end of the evening.

Some rare Duran humor came in the form of four transparent synthetic masks placed high above the stage. A few times the guys’ faces were projected onto them, either singing or sporting garish sunglasses, while backing vocalist Anna Ross’ face was transformed into an animal. I thought the props should’ve been used more often.

Among the highlights: an infectious, danceable “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment),” a nod to John Taylor’s early Chic influence; a fun, extended take on “The Reflex,” complete with Le Bon’s famous spin from the video; the funky, percussion-heavy “Girl Panic!”; a sinister rocking edge to “Careless Memories,” during which Brown continued to prove himself a worthy successor to Andy Taylor and Warren Cuccurullo; and the exhilarating “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise.”

There were also some twists. John Taylor admitted to being a “tweetoholic” onstage and urged people to tweet messages about Duran that appeared on the screens during the exotic, rare Seven and the Ragged Tiger instrumental “Tiger Tiger.” Later, during the encores, Brown used an enticing new guitar effect for his weepy “Ordinary World” solo.

The beefy, tribal “Wild Boys” whipped fans into even more of a frenzy and was a showcase for Roger Taylor. It segued into Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” (unfortunately just a snatch) then circled back to the original song. While listening to Simon Willescroft’s sax work on the always electrifying concert closer “Rio,” I couldn’t help think about how that solo is one of the most iconic from the ’80s New Wave era. And Duran Duran remains one of its most quintessential bands.

Neon Trees, reviewed here recently at Pacific Amphitheatre, Doheny Days and Coachella, was a perfect fit to open. The Utah-via-Temecula alt-rock group turned in an exuberant 40-minute set consisting of tunes from their 2010 Habits EP, notably the multi-format smash single “Animal.”

Duran Duran and Neon Trees next head to The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 4455 Paradise Road, Las Vegas, 8 p.m. Sept. 30, $102.45; then Harrah’s Rincon Casino, Open Sky Theatre, 777 Harrahs Rincon Way, Valley Center, 8 p.m. Oct. 1, $54.50-$70.40. Prices include fees.

by George A Paul
Photo by Chris Young, for The Orange County Register.
Courtesy Orange County Register