25 Oct 2011: Madison Square Garden New York
With all the other venues on their North American tour of a considerably smaller nature, when Duran Duran announced their date at Madison Square Garden for October 25, it seemed a bit out of step. Sure, it was done in conjunction with some anniversary of a pair of popular NYC septuagenarian radio hosts, and as some cynic nearby said, they probably gave away a shit ton of tickets. But to poorly paraphrase a quote that may or may not have come from another aged New Yorker with a fondness for Madison Square Garden, Woody Allen: 80% of pop icon success is getting people to show up.
A lot of people turned up at the venerable arena on Tuesday night, skipping out on whatever else people do on a Tuesday night in and around NYC to hear the long list of hits in Duran Duran’s extensive back catalogue. And let’s face it: the hits are what much of the crowd turned up for. The faithful in the GA pit in front of the stage would have probably preferred to see a show with no hits at all, though they dutifully sang along with “Ordinary World” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” as they have countless times in the past. But those golden oldies saw the greatest number of iPhone lighter apps held aloft throughout the lower and upper bowls. The new songs? Well, that was something of a mixed bag, especially as far as audience participation goes.
Back in April, Duran Duran hit the US on a short tour which included what could have been something of a game changer for them, a sunset performance on the big stage on the last night of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. For reasons they’re only partly responsible for, Duran Duran has spent much of their career marginalized by so-called serious music fans. Frequent spreads in 16 Magazine did little for their legitimacy in the ‘80s, though in their defense, if you were young, beautiful and stuffed stem to stern with cocaine, you might have pouted your lips for the camera and accepted the pre-pubescent shrieks of stadiums full of little girls as your lot too.
At Coachella, none of that mattered. Sure, there were dour musos who slouched their shoulders and bitched on their blogs about having to hear “Rio” in the desert, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the other acts spread out over the three days of the festival had been influenced themselves by Duran Duran.
Maybe it was feeling like they had something to prove, or it was refreshing to tap into the art-rock side aesthetic that was such a part of their earliest work, but Duran Duran killed. Perhaps the stage was still likely buzzing with the unbridled energy of Death From Above 1979’s set, or it’s possible there’s more magic in the air at Coachella than all the piles of drugs consumed by some of the kids who go there. Whatever it was, from the moment they built the Euro-disco majesty of “Planet Earth” from the ground up to the closing crash of “Girls on Film”, it was an absolute, unequivocal victory.
As has often been the case with Duran Duran since the mid-‘80s, they failed to capitalize on that momentum. In this particular case, everything went quiet, as frontman Simon Le Bon suffered a summer of vocal rehabilitation.
And now they’re touring North America in support of an album that was digitally released 10 months ago. The Mark Ronson-produced All You Need is Now is one of the finest collections of Duran Duran’s career, but beyond its nearly universal critical acclaim, it didn’t make much of a sales impact.
Duran Duran belongs in arenas like Madison Square Garden. They did back in March 1984, when they played a pair of sold out shows there, and they have in the handful of times they’ve returned over the years. They play well to the back of the house and are still handsome enough to get squeals of delight out of their fans up front and those elsewhere in the house who saw them on the big screens that were part of the band’s fairly flashy stage setup.
The screens were mostly engaging, and the constantly shifting Twitter feed was fun to see. Also kind of cool was the presence of four giant plastic faces high above the stage, on which film that included the faces of Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bass guitarist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor were broadcast in a way that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever hit the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
But then we were also treated to clips showcasing the band’s inexplicable continued support for Second Life, the online World of Warcraft-style community for people who would rather pretend they’re thin and can dance. Duran Duran first became involved with Second Life around the time of their 2007 album, Red Carpet Massacre, and even then it already felt hopelessly out of fashion.
The music was also not without its peaks and valleys, especially if you gauge such things on how the crowd responds. Most people stood and swayed and even got some of the lyrics right during the chart-toppers from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and most of those same people sat during the other songs. There was an audible groan from someone in Section 108 when the lush semi-ballad “Leave a Light On” was introduced with the standard “here’s our new single” line. But that sort of behavior wasn’t just reserved for the new stuff: “Tiger Tiger”, an instrumental from the 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger likely aired mid-set to give Le Bon a chance to rest his voice, sounded great, but for many in the crowd, its moody vibe just didn’t mean anything.
The prospect of a night of vast chasms between ebbs and flows was established with the first two songs; the opening number was “Before the Rain”, a solemn gem which either closed or turned up midway through the second half of the new album depending upon whether you prefer the initial digital version or the overstuffed CD/vinyl. As a means of beginning a concert – at least one in a vast arena – it didn’t have the feel of a party-starting jam, and the dour black and white footage on the screens that might as well have come from The Sorrow and the Pity didn’t change that. And then they played “Planet Earth”, which was really where the show began.
It would be disingenuous to say all the new stuff fell completely short with the people in the crowd who don’t give a shit that Duran Duran recorded anything after 1985, though the vibe was definitely not happening during “Blame the Machines” or “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”. Aside from having the stones to play those absolutely terrific songs in an arena at least partly packed with people who’ve never heard them, the fault can’t lie with Duran Duran. They played it like they meant it from start to finish, and they sounded terrific. Le Bon’s voice was strong through most of the set, and when it wasn’t it’s probably because he’s always sounded like that. He’s a swashbuckler on stage, not a sophisticate.
In addition to the album’s eponymous lead single, the two All You Need is Now songs which got the best response from the greatest number of people were “Girl Panic!” and “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)”, which saw guest appearances by Ronson and Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic respectively. The former is slated to make some sort of splash next month with a video that harkens back to Duran Duran’s prolific early years, especially as it’s loaded with supermodels. Matronic has only appeared live on stage with Duran Duran to perform the duet on two occasions, with the first being Coachella.
Duran Duran’s tour rolled on through the northeast after hitting New York City, and they’ll pick it up again in Europe in a month or so, appearing on dates initially canceled when Le Bon’s voice bottomed out. They’ve good reason to be proud of the songs on All You Need is Now and despite the world tour happening so late in the game, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to try and support that music. But in Madison Square Garden on a Tuesday night, that noble mission statement only mattered to some of the people there. The rest were perfectly happy to sing along to the oldies.