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Duran Duran spark funky '80s dance party in St. Paul

1980s hitmakers Duran Duran performing at Xcel Energy Center on July 23, 2016.

1980s hitmakers Duran Duran performing at Xcel Energy Center on July 23, 2016.

There is a sense of carefree innocence layered within the music of Duran Duran. Their shimmering pop songs -- and ‘80s-defining music videos -- evoke images of beaches, sun-drenched escapades, and effortless style suited for any occasion.

And on a muggy summer Saturday, 10,000 music fans of all ages packed into St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center looking to escape the bleak headlines and cartoon carnival that is our current election cycle, while dancing their cares away to the buoyant, nostalgia-laden tunes of the venerable U.K. hitmakers.

The positive vibes started early in the evening, with an extended opening set by Chic featuring Nile Rodgers. The musical legend touted his songwriting/production credits for chart-topping hits from the past (Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family”), straight through to the modern era (Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”), while deftly leading his band through a medley of those beloved numbers. 

Before the latter tune, Rodgers shared an emotional story about his recent battle with cancer, and how he was determined to fight it the only way he knew how – by writing and playing more music than he ever had in his life. The first call he got during this ordeal was “from two French guys named Daft Punk, and Pharrell.” Rodgers’ guitar riff formed the dynamic core of the Grammy-winning DP/Pharrell jam “Get Lucky,” and his version took on an added celebratory nature following his touching story of now being cancer-free for five years.

In addition to Chic’s own joyous, relentlessly funky material -- “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak,” and “Good Times” -- Rodgers gave a nod to another collaboration that shaped his musical career. “In 1982, I met a man named David Bowie, and that changed my life.” He then led his tight, talented band through a vibrant run through of “Let’s Dance,” which wouldn’t be the only tribute paid to Bowie throughout the evening.

It’s rare that an entire arena gets up and dances during an opener’s set, but Rodgers and Chic saw to it that we not only got moving to their towering rhythms, but that we were all smiling by the time they were done. 

It took Duran Duran a bit to match the emotional high of their openers, as the operatic, “Bohemian Rhapsody”-like opener “Paper Gods” failed to find a spark before giving way to the rowdy, resilient anthem “The Wild Boys” and a horn-drenched “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Frontman Simon Le Bon’s vocals struggled to reach the higher registers on occasion, especially during their celebrated Bond theme, “A View to a Kill,” and the wistful ballad, “Ordinary World.” 

The group’s formidable rhythm section -- featuring bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor -- consistently gave the material an undulating pulse, as they locked in with the sonic wizardry of MNDR (Macalester College graduate Amanda Warner), who was filling in on keyboards while Nick Rhodes was back home dealing with family issues. She helped give a fresh electronic edge to the band’s new material, “Last Night in the City” and current single “Pressure Off,” the latter of which featured an exuberant release of confetti cannons only halfway through the show.

But for the most part, those current tracks -- especially the somnolent “What Are the Chances?” -- failed to resonate with an audience that was clearly there to hear the big hits from their youth.

And, for the most part, those celebrated numbers still sound as exultant and catchy as they did back in the day. Duran Duran's debut single, 1981’s “Planet Earth,” was given added resonance with an endearing tag of “Space Oddity” added to the end, while a picture of a young David Bowie was projected on the large screen as the stage lights dimmed.  

Nile Rodgers returned to the stage to join the band he’s been working with for 33 years, adding his funk flavor to “Notorious” and “Pressure Off.” The group even delivered a raucous cover of Melle Mel’s anti-drug hip-hop classic “White Lines” (complete with Simon donning a sequined fedora as he tried his best to rap), while the potent combination of stone-cold classics “The Reflex” and “Girls on Film” ended the main set on a decided high note.

Le Bon asked for the lights to be turned purple when the band returned for the encore, affectionately stating his love of Prince and the impact he had on the band.

“He was one of the greatest musicians that the world will ever see," he told the crowd. "A lot of our songs wouldn’t sound like they do if it wasn’t for Prince.”

A touching version of “Save a Prayer” followed, with the arena awash in thousands of cell-phone lights and a warm purple hue.

But the night’s dance party wasn’t complete. The iconic cover art of Rio was projected on the screen while the familiar riffs of the album’s title track rang out, and large beach balls were tossed into the crowd. That summery jam brought a festive end to a celebratory night of music that had the audience feeling like teenagers again, if only for a fleeting moment.

Critic’s bias: Like any kid who came of age in the '80s, I was won over by the stylish charms of Duran Duran’s videos, and the irrepressible nature of their songs.

The crowd: Mostly Gen X or older, looking to recapture their youthful spirit for an evening.

Random notebook dump: Brian Setzer was seated across the aisle from me, but when he was mobbed with adoring fans between sets, he went to watch the show from the side of the stage.

Setlist:

Paper Gods
The Wild Boys
Hungry Like the Wolf
A View to a Kill
Come Undone
Last Night in the City
What Are the Chances?
Notorious (with Nile Rodgers)
Pressure Off (with Nile Rodgers)
Planet Earth/Space Oddity
Ordinary World
I Don’t Want Your Love
White Lines (Don’t Do It) (Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel)
(Reach Up For the) Sunrise/New Moon On Monday
The Reflex
Girls on Film
--Encore—
Save a Prayer
Rio