PITTSBURGH ― Let’s start at the end.
Duran Duran encored this past Saturday night in Pittsburgh with an audience singalong version of “Save a Prayer.” That was followed by “Rio,” a song inextricable from its Caribbean yacht video, and the tune that best encapsulates the band’s MTV-era appeal.
Then they basked in the raucous applause of the PPG Paints Arena audience, some members of which undoubtedly have Duran Duran’s video library forever burned into their brains.
This is what you’d expect, after all, from a band on a 40th-anniversary tour. The anniversary was originally of the band’s self-titled debut album, released in 1981, and commemorated with the 2021 release Future Past.
But two years on, the group is actually marking another significant milestone: "Rio," the band’s second album, which broke through in America in the spring of 1983, and made Duran Duran global superstars.
Saturday’s show made an overt nod to those heady days during “Is There Something I Should Know,” which peaked at No. 4 four decades ago. A selection of magazine covers, showing the band in all its magnificently coiffed glory, was shown on the video monitors.
And if you wanted Duran Duran’s other signature smashes − and of course, you did − they were all there, from the New Romantic-derived “Planet Earth” to the stuttering funk of “The Reflex” to the James Bond theme “A View to a Kill,” with those familiar orchestral hits slicing up the rumbling groove.
Again, all as you’d expect. But there's a big difference between being an “Eighties band,” and a band that had hits in the Eighties. That is a difference that many people ignore when it comes to Duran Duran. The high points of Saturday’s show made this clear − and made the case that, even though they’re newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Duran Duran might still be one of the most underrated groups around.
Unlike most acts of their vintage, the group has never taken an extended hiatus. They’ve consistently released consistently interesting music. And the core foursome − vocalist Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor, and drummer Roger Taylor − appear to be as creatively productive as ever.
Tellingly, the heart of Saturday’s set included two older tunes, and two more recent ones − none of them big Eighties successes.
It started with a deliriously campy take on “Friends of Mine,” which included clips from old horror films − a nod to the band’s upcoming album, the Halloween-themed "Dance Macabre." The swaggering funk-rock was infectious; the sense of humor is something for which Duran Duran has never gotten enough credit. (Also smile-worthy was the goofy take on Rick James’s “Super Freak,” presented in a medley with “Lonely in Your Nightmare.” A smirking Le Bon demurely altered the song’s opening line: “She’s a very friendly girl.”)
“Friends of Mine” was followed up by another song from the band’s 1981 debut: “Careless Memories.” Never a hit in the U.S., it went by in a gloriously punky rush, showcasing longtime touring guitarist Dom Brown.
There was nowhere to go after that but introspection. “Ordinary World” is credited as the song that relaunched Duran Duran in 1993. Le Bon dedicated it Saturday to the people of Ukraine, but the sentiment of “not giving up,” as he described it, is timeless. Written by LeBon about the death of his friend David Miles, the lyrics do that thing so rarely seen in popular music: achieving genuine pathos without any bathos.
Perhaps the most unexpected highlight came a couple of tunes later. It was a song also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year: Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five’s nominally anti-cocaine anthem “White Lines.”
Duran Duran versioned the track on their 1995 covers album "Thank You." Despite praise from musicians like Lou Reed and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, whose songs were included in the collection, many critics savaged that disc. The group’s take on “White Lines” was singled out by several writers as a misstep. How dare Duran Duran appropriate American hip hop?
Saturday was proof that the group was, ultimately, correct. Duran Duran’s metallic, high-energy rendition showcased a genuine love of the original, and is a reminder that when combined, great music and great musicians almost always win out.
Speaking of great musicians, Saturday’s set was a reminder of just how proficient a bassist John Taylor truly is. His muscular basslines, riding high in the mix, propelled almost every song. When you give a close listen to the complex bottom end of tunes like “Rio,” it’s hard to believe that back in the old days, people used to dismiss Duran Duran as just a “synthesizer band” with no real musical talent.
Of course, the whole world has come around to the futuristic vision of those synthesizer bands. From behind his bank of keyboards, orchestrating the action as he has since the band’s earliest days in Birmingham, the stoic Nick Rhodes looked on − we might assume, bemusedly. Generations of artists have helped themselves to aspects of the musical M.O. he helped pioneer. But as the moody show-opener “Velvet Newton” − from the band’s 2021 album "Future Past" − showed, there’s still nobody else who does it better.
Show opener and countrymen Bastille turned in a charming hourlong set Saturday. It was bookended by the two songs that best exemplify the quartet’s massed vocal singalong pop: the 2016 single “Good Grief” and the breakthrough Top Three hit “Pompeii.” That tune’s rousing chorus −“How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” − once again answered its own question by providing undeniable uplift.
Courtesy Beaver County Times