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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Duran Duran: No Mas , No Mas

August 20, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 on Wednesday and plays the sold-out Forum in Inglewood 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. That's as true today as it was back then.

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 back alley.

The arbitrary array of props included a red telephone booth, a small TV monitor, a suspended globe showing the Western Hemisphere 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 lacking human interaction, dull and obvious, or simply inscrutable.

There was one point in the concert, however, when Duran Duran looked as if it might begin to soar. It came when Lamya Al' Mugheiry, a backup singer whose role was mainly to serve as a slinky, scantily clad living mannequin, stepped forward during "Come Undone" and stole what there was of the show that was worth stealing.

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 on the stage did anything remotely distinctive during the 95-minute concert--certainly not singer Simon Le Bon, whose meager voice was noticeably strained, or Warren Cuccurrullo, whose generic metalloid stadium-rock guitar whanging and whinnying produced not a lick of interest.

Bassist John Taylor and keyboards player Nick Rhodes were ciphers, both musically and in terms of stage presence. A hired-hand drummer bashed stiffly. A trio of seldom-audible string players sat at the back of the stage for the entire program. When they could be heard, the trio merely thickened the sound.

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: a cover of Grandmaster & Melle Mel's "White Lines (Don't Do It)," an edgy, hard-funk song 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 encore with the new single, "Too Much Information."

But it was the lowlights, not what passed for highlights, that defined the show.

Duran Duran stumbled by slowing "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Girls on Film," evidently in hopes of investing these teeny-bop notions from the past with an adult-rated sultriness and feral sexuality. Forget it: the old teen-fluff was at least brisk and poppy; these treatments slogged.

Le Bon was so ill-suited to his work as front man that one could almost sympathize with him. He expended lots of energy, but his attempts at dancing were forced and gawky.

In a job that calls for a floating, pirouetting Michael Jordan, he is a lumbering Kurt Rambis. Duran Duran's music calls for a funk-soul smoothie; the stiffly hyperactive Le Bon resembles Steve Martin playing a Wild and Crazy Guy.

He needs something, anything, that might make him seem more comfortable inside his own hide when it comes time to react to the music. As it is, Duran Duran is a dance-rock band that can't dance.

The most awkward and foolish moment among many came when Le Bon had to spend almost all of "UMF" (one of four songs drawn from the comeback album, "Duran Duran") hooked to thick ropes suspended from the rafters.

Meanwhile, Lamya, dressed (scantily, of course) as a nurse, mixed dry-ice potions and Rhodes sat inert in a wheelchair, apparently playing the part of an evil doctor.

Le Bon did nothing to act a role, and one wondered whether as a climax to this lifeless and pointless scene, we would see him hoisted aloft a la Peter Pan. No such luck: Le Bon didn't fly; he slunk off, ropes and all, into the sewer pipe.

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