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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Duran Duran: No Mas, No Mas


IRVINE — Duran Duran's big commercial comeback is proof that history can repeat itself. Now there's an encouraging thought.

No, it is not encouraging that Duran Duran, which almost sold out Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Wednesday night and plays a sold-out Forum on Monday, is a big commercial success again after a long downward slide from its '80s peak as an early darling of MTV. At its best, the English band offers nothing more than proficient craft, and a certain melodic knack with its lush ballads and insubstantial but hummable pop-rockers.

What's encouraging is that history can repeat itself. In 1980, the year Duran Duran signed its first recording contract, another Duran came to the sudden realization that he was unequal to his calling and, with the words "no mas," quit fighting in the middle of a championship boxing match. Perhaps Roberto Duran's namesakes will one day do likewise.

It should have happened Wednesday night, when Duran Duran put on a performance nearly devoid of charm, intelligence and musical spark. The flaccid affair was played out on an elaborate but ill-conceived set that looked like a tenement's drab back alley. The arbitrary array of props included a red telephone booth, a small TV monitor, a suspended globe and a horizontal sewer pipe with manhole cover that, come to think of it, did carry some symbolic value.

The band's attempts at theatrics to illustrate or comment upon songs were coldly devoid of human interaction, dull and obvious, or simply inscrutable. Only once did Duran Duran look as if it might begin to soar: when Lamya Al' Mugheiry, the backup singer whose role was mainly to serve as a slinky, scantily clad living mannequin, stepped forward during "Come Undone."

Lamya, as she is known, turned the hip-hop-influenced ballad from an embarrassment into a triumph. It was embarrassing that she had to strip off a girlish, candy-pink dress with petticoats during the song and shimmy at center-stage in video-vixen undies. It was triumphant that she began to let go with fiery, high-ranging vocal sallies that made you forget what she was or wasn't wearing and admire the musical heat and force of the moment.

Nobody else did anything remotely distinctive during the 95-minute concert. Certainly not singer Simon Le Bon, whose meager voice was noticeably strained, and whose stage moves were eager and energetic but pathetically gawky (Duran Duran is a dance-rock band with no dancers in it).

Besides Lamya's big moment, and one or two other instances when she was briefly featured as a singer rather than as the designated sex-object, Duran Duran registered a few passable numbers: an edgy, hard-funk version of Grandmaster & Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)" that benefited from the fact that it called for Le Bon to shout rather than sing, brisk treatments of "The Reflex" and "Rio," and a reasonably hard-hitting rendition of the new single, "Too Much Information."

But Duran Duran stumbled by slowing "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Girls on Film" until they slogged; apparently the band had hoped to invest these teeny-bop notions from the past with an adult-rated sultriness and feral sexuality.

Terence Trent D'Arby's opening set offered most of what Duran Duran lacked: great dance moves and accomplished singing based in the soul tradition. Stevie Salas' heavy-handed lead guitar work was a drawback, but D'Arby himself impressed with good material and an abundance of all-around talent.

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