Duran Duran. CHIC. Red Rocks. 09.20.15
The early season storms were a distant memory as fans young and old made their way into the Red Rocks Amphitheatre on a mid-September evening, but when the lights went down on the stage, the audience was met with the recognizable sound of thunder. Strobe lights mimicked crackling lightning, as real-life wind carried miniature clouds of marijuana smoke over the crowd. Clove cigarettes added a unique aroma to the air; a bouquet not usually found this side of the 80’s. Girls in leopard print outfits held hands with guys in sport coats, while men in leather pants were buying t-shirts for their children. Not everyone was dressed for the occasion, but there was just enough flamboyant flair to know this wasn’t your average pop concert on the Rocks. This was Duran Duran. And it was the first time the band had graced Morrison with its presence. So when the synthetic storm broke and the band magically appeared on the stage, we were instantly engulfed in a time bubble. It might have been 2015 in the outside world, but within the confines of the monoliths, it was the time of big hair, MTV VJs and synth-powered pop music. It was the time of Simon, Nick, John and Roger. It was the time of Duran Duran.
Now, that’s not to say Duran Duran are only good for nostalgia. The fantastic four kicked things off (with some assistance from Anna Ross and Jessie Wagner) with the long-running title track off their latest album, Paper Gods. The nature scenes being projected on the big screen were slightly confusing as Le Bon navigated his way through the spaced-out track, but as his voice hitched a ride to the back of the venue on Rhodes’ synthed-out echoes, it left no doubt that the band are as relevant today as they were in any decade. The fact that the song sounds exactly like old-school Duran Duran, yet finds itself right at home among contemporary pop music, is just a reminder of how much influence the band has had on younger generations of musicians. But influential status doesn’t mean a lack of humility, so it was with true gratitude that Le Bon thanked the fans for helping Paper Gods enter the US charts at the highest position of any Duran Duran album in the past twenty years – a fact they learned backstage before the show. All that aside though, the new songs are just a way to spice up an already winning recipe, so when the opening selection was followed by a run from the 80’s, the night came alive.
“Hungry Like a Wolf” saw the two-toned Le Bon joined center-stage by Dom Brown and John Taylor, flanked by the angelic voices of Ross and Wagner. I hadn’t seen the band since ’95 (when they were performing a bunch of covers), so to be able to witness that classic up close and personal was a real treat. I was in the 9th row, so I’m not sure if the sound was able to compete with the wind up top, but it was pure perfection up front. The core members of the band were all as tight and on-point as anyone could have asked, and although the saxophone player stayed in the shadows, his contribution could be felt as well as heard. “Oh Red Rocks!’ Le Bon seemed truly in awe as he started snapping his fingers to the James Bond theme before performing the appropriate “A View to a Kill”, but it wasn’t until the intro to the next song that he made his feelings known. “Look at this place! This is beautiful! This is like playing inside what’s left of an ancient alien spaceship. I like it. Lets get all of you singing now!” The deafening sound of thousands of people (kinda) in sync (“da na na na”) overpowered Le Bon as Roger and Rhodes set the controls for 1983 with “The Reflex”. The guys might not be the kids they once were, but they didn’t seem to have any problem with the altitude as they cranked things up a notch to compete with the decibel level of their fans.
“It feels like it’s still the summer of love in here. We have our own love song. It’s a love song, a sex song, and a birthday present.” Red Rocks became the site of the largest prom as a giant disco ball sent things spinning during “Come Undone”. Wagner and Ross took the opportunity to shine, as a simple tambourine drove hundreds of couples to slow dance in the rows, on the stairs, and all the spaces between. The moment was short lived though. “Last Night in the City” abruptly transported us from the auditorium to the club. Once again, Wagner and Ross earned their keep during that banger, but Roger Taylor looked like someone who wasn’t invited to the party. “What Are The Chances?” brought things back to Red Rocks, but two new songs in a row inevitably caused a mass bathroom and beer break, so there was a mad rush for everyone to get back to their seats when Nile Rodgers took the stage for an assist on “Notorious” and “Pressure Off”. Having just performed the surprise opening set of the season, Rodgers was still on fire for his victory lap. After paying tribute to the man they’ve worked with for over two decades, the boys took us back to the beginning. It really is a mystery how Le Bon can sound the same as he did in ’81, but it was John Taylor who owned “Planet Earth” last night. The man was unstoppable!
After professing his love for the wind (a sentiment that wasn’t shared by those in the back rows, I’m sure), Le Bon got a little emotional about his surroundings. “It’s quite a landmark in your career when you play Red Rocks, it’s got a reputation…” And because he was emotional, it was time to make everyone else emotional as well…so we went back to the high school dance once again. The disco ball shone brighter than ever as flashlight apps were put to good use during “Ordinary World”. And then the percussion-heavy “The Wild Boys” threatened the stability of venue itself. It’s just too bad that instead of building on the momentum of that song, they blew the opportunity by dropping the only bomb of the set. I’m sure there are people who enjoyed “Danceophobia”, but the energy was sucked right out of the section I was in. It was at that point when people started filing out along both sides…trying to beat the traffic that was to come. I understand the reasoning behind that type of behavior, but it was a big mistake to leave early at a Duran Duran concert. “Too Much Information” came next, and because the song literally predicted the future, the lyrics were more relevant today than they were when they were written. It provided the perfect bridge from the new stuff back to the old, and it set things up for the closer. “Girls on Film” was the song I heard most people talking about in the parking lot before the show, so I’m sure those who left early were kicking themselves as the sounds followed them out to their cars.
“This is why we do this!” John was the first one back on stage, followed shortly by Le Bon (who had changed into a one of those 1978 t-shirts). “Hello girls! Hello fellas!” Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” was not what I expected as the encore, but it was fun in a dumb sorta way. Covering rap music is not what Duran Duran does best, but there was no denying its effect on the crowd. Proving age doesn’t matter when it comes to sex symbol status, the girls in the audience went crazy as Le Bon grabbed his crotch while rapping about the evils of cocaine. I couldn’t help but laugh, and maybe that was the goal, but it was a relief when the tired “put your hands in the air!” shtick came to an end with “Save a Prayer”. All hands stayed in their upright positions, but they were waving side-to-side in slow motion as one of the greatest ballads of the 80’s was performed on one of the greatest stages in the world. Then Patrick Nagel’s painting lit up behind the band and the evening came to a close with a girl named Rio (dancing on the sand and across the Rio Grande). It was the perfect closer to a near-perfect show. As the boys from England took their leave, the time bubble gave way to a cool September night. And as we made our way to our cars, it was obvious that Duran Duran aren’t really an 80’s band (or a 90’s band). They are just a band who make music that was most popular back then. They are no more stuck in any decade than The Rolling Stones are. No one refers to The Stones as a 60’s or 70’s band, they are just a rock band. Just as Duran Duran are just a synth pop band. Just a timeless, ageless, incredible synth pop band.
As I said before, Nile Rodgers delivered the surprise set of the season. His long history with Duran Duran, as well as working with them on their latest album, made him an obvious choice as opener, but if the conversations around the bar were any indication of the audience as a whole, very few people knew who he was before his performance. That changed shortly after he took the stage with the latest incarnation of CHIC. “Most of you don’t know what I do as a day job…I write and produce #1 records!” And as if to prove he wasn’t just being braggadocious, he led the way for Folami and Kimberly Davis to school the audience with a crash course in disco. “I’m Coming Out”, “Upside Down”, “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family” were just a few of his contributions to that era of music, and they sounded great live, but they were only the first lesson. After a short recess for his latest single, accompanied by an almost pornographic video of a girl in panties getting off to Soul Train, Rodgers assured us that his talents were not going to waste in the post-disco age. The man co-wrote one of the biggest summer hits in recent memory, so when Davis cracked the sky wide open with a solo intro to the song made famous by Daft Punk, “Get Lucky” became one of the most moving performances of the Red Rocks season. Turning around to get a taste of what they were seeing from the stage, I was rewarded with a sea of tiny white lights dancing to the music. CHIC as a whole were bringing new life to the song while Davis gave voice to what it really means to get lucky.
Rodgers was diagnosed with “extremely aggressive cancer” four and a half years ago. He was told get his affairs in order. He decided that meant to “write more songs and do more shows.” Now he’s cancer-free. I’m not sure if the cancer scare is what prompted him to bring so much life to the stage, but there was just something about his performance that went above and beyond. Sure, CHIC is an incredible group of musicians, Rodgers is a badass on the guitar, and Folami and Kimberly have voices that’ll make you fall in love, but there was something happening on that stage that was so much more than the sum of its parts. I doubt there were a ton of disco fans in the house, but everyone (I mean, everyone!) was on their feet, singing and clapping and dancing along through the entire set. Even when vocal duties were handed over to Biscuit (the drummer) for Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” (another Nile Rodgers production), you would have thought Bowie himself was on the stage.
“You guys feel like freakin’ out?!!!” Nobody says ‘disco’ when asked what type of music they like the best, but nobody stands still when “Le Freak” is playing either. And the only thing that can top an infectious freak-out at Red Rocks is a sing-along “Good Times” at Red Rocks. So as the stage was flooded with girls from audience, the dance party was in full effect. Rodgers switched things up mid-song with a little “Rapper’s Delight”, but then he brought things back around to finish it off.
“Good times, these are the good times
Leave your cares behind, these are the good times
Good times, these are the good times
Our new state of mind, these are the good times”
Truer words were never spoken.
CHIC feat Nile Rodgers:
Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)
I Want Your Love
I’m Coming Out / Upside Down / He’s The Greatest Dancer / We Are Family
I’ll Be There
Chic Cheer / My Forbidden Lover
Good Times / Rapper’s Delight / Good Times
Hungry Like the Wolf
A View to a Kill
Last Night in the City
What Are the Chances?
(Reach Up for the) Sunrise
The Wild Boys
Too Much Information
Girls on Film
White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)
Save a Prayer