Duran Duran Fights the Nostalgia-Act Tag With Everything They've Got

Duran Duran, Chic feat. Nile Rodgers
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
April 23, 2016

Fans from across Houston and beyond filled Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion to the lawn Saturday for a chance to spend the evening with Britain’s fab five, Duran Duran. Looking like someone had ordered a mandatory soccer-mom meeting, the crowd was a swarming collective of ‘burb couples and middle-aged dads in button-up shirts sitting while their better halves danced.

Welcome to Houston date night.

The Mom Pants set is a polite group, responsible and mature. There would be no fans rushing the stage, or screams of ‘FUCK YEAH’ from the audience; it would be more of a "Hold my purse, dear" evening. I was hoping for a real '80s night with people (who actually lived through the '80s) dressed for the occasion. Sadly, I appeared to be the only time-warped traveler in bangles and blue eyeshadow.

With the Pavilion awash in a buffet of upper-middle-class whiteness, I was eager for some delicious voyeurism of people-watching with copious boozing and bad dancing. I was not disappointed. After an abrupt about-face at the merch tent when I saw Duran Duran shirts priced well over $50, I headed to my seat in time for Chic to take the stage.

Commence bad dancing.

Nile Rodgers was head-to-toe in white and played from a well-loved guitar so old the paint had rubbed off. With a smile on his face, he told the crowd of winning his battle with cancer and then played a tribute to David Bowie. With the drummer on vocals, “Let’s Dance” had the crowd on their feet.

They moved through hits like “I’m Coming Out,” “We Are Family,” “Upside Down,” “Le Freak” and others. At one point, audience members joined the band onstage, turning the entire Pavilion into Houston's loudest outdoor disco party. The energy and joy emanating from the band made Chic the kind of opener you’d like to see at every show.

Sadly, that happiness was noticeably missing from the headliners.

Duran Duran took the stage to my utter (and embarrassingly loud) hysteria, opening with “Paper Gods,” then “Wild Boys.” LeBon’s voice is as strong as it was 35 years ago; in fact, the whole band was in expert form. Of course they’re well-practiced. Still, there were moments here and there when LeBon looked fatigued, though his vocal performance never showed it. (A bit of Seven and the Ragged Tired?) A few times they just appeared to play their instruments, but keep in mind they are only 15 shows into a tour that lasts well throughout the entire summer.

A massive tour takes massive energy. Commendably, Duran Duran has aged well and managed to keep themselves healthy and clean, not an easy thing in rock and roll. Bassist John Taylor still regularly volunteers his time to help addicts in recovery, a noble thing to do given his star status.

If they were overtaxed by the blistering tour schedule, it didn’t matter anyway, at least not to their Houston fans. Duran Duran could have taken the stage and played absurd noises to interpretive dancing and the crowd would have still applauded. We love them, tired or not. How many people do you know who've had tickets to Duran Duran for months?

LeBon didn’t address the crowd often outside of a touching tribute for Prince (“Save A Prayer”) and a mash-up tribute for Bowie (“Planet Earth” into “Space Oddity”) and an introduction of the other band members (as if we needed one). It felt as if they were rushed, though.

Duran Duran left the stage at 10:50 p.m. It felt short, cut off, unfinished. I wasn’t the only one with that sentiment; upon exiting the Pavilion, a woman next to my party exclaimed, “That’s it? They didn’t even play 'The Reflex'!”

No, they didn’t. The set list was actually lacking quite a few of their old hits, which was surprising to me. Honestly, it was a little disappointing, considering I’d waited since 1982 to see them live. They played many songs from last year's Paper Gods, like “Pressure Off” and “Danceophobia." 

Yet to be fair, they’ve only played “The Reflex” once on this tour, making it obvious it’s not something they care to play, even if fans (including this one) really wanted them to. But several of their early hits also went unplayed: “Is There Something I Should Know?” “Union of the Snake,” “The Chauffeur,” “My Own Way” and “Careless Memories,” just to name a few.

Duran Duran's catalog of hits could easily fill up three or four hours, and if they had had more energy or the improvisational freedom to play longer, they certainly would have been met with applause. But no one I spoke to said he or she didn’t enjoy the show.

Unlike some fans, I don’t peek into a tour's previous set lists; some people hold strong, solid opinions on the matter, with which I happen to agree. I prefer to be surprised, and would have been in a sour mood had I looked at the Dallas or Austin set list ahead of time. I like their older stuff and wanted more of it. 

Duran Duran certainly could expand their set list to a lengthier version, but that’s their call. What performance we did see was a professionally tight set that delivered their best cuts from across the years. And after nearly 40 years of world tours and nearly as many records, they still deliver an excellent show — even if it's not all the songs I wanted to hear.
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Kristy Loye is a writer living in Houston and has been writing for the Houston Press since July 2015. A recent Rice University graduate, when not teaching writing craft or reciting poetry, she's upsetting alt-rights on Reddit.