Wednesday, February 10, 2021

February 10th 1993, Duran Duran at the Danforth Music Hall

In the early nineties performing acoustic sets was a really big thing. MTV was still very much a showcase for music videos and new music at the time, and one of their biggest shows was a series of acoustic performances called "MTV Unplugged" where bands would do stripped down sets in an intimate live setting, giving fans an interesting opportunity to see them reinvent their songs in new and different ways. A number of the artists involved ended up releasing their sessions as albums separate from the series itself, and soon there was a boom of acoustic songs playing on the radio, including notable releases by Nirvana, Eric Clapton, and others. In retrospect I imagine that the acoustic movement was part of the backlash against the slick and synthesized elements of the eighties, a different sound for a new generation that was very much in keeping with the nineties ideal of being more real, more down to earth than the decade before.

The acoustic thing remained fairly popular for a while, and some bands took it to the next level by touring as an acoustic act, redoing older songs from their back catalogs in ways that often shone a new light on their musical talents and abilities. Duran Duran was one of those bands and in 1993 they did a small run of acoustic shows to promote their new release "The Wedding Album". At the time the band were working through new ideas for a style and sound that would work for them in a new decade, especially after their last couple of albums had been less well received than their predecessors, and to their credit they were able to tap into that nineties ideal on the strength of the singles "Ordinary World" and "Come Undone" which were a little more reflective and self-aware than the New Wave Pop that had made them stars. 

So armed with a newer, more mature sound Duran Duran went on an acoustic tour to promote the album and it was a pretty great show. For the Toronto stop on the tour they played at the Danforth Music Hall, a classic theatre in the east end of the city that just celebrated it's hundredth anniversary last year. I really like the Music Hall, it's a great space for a show, a big high ceiling, lots of space. It's currently a seatless venue used for General Admission shows, but back in the nineties it was seated with velvet cushions rather than the rows of folding chairs that were spaced out on the floors at places like the Exhibition or Maple Leaf Gardens. It was comfy and kind of schwanky. 

They opened with "Planet Earth" which is in keeping with many Duran Duran shows both before and after. And given the synth heavy sound of the original, you may be wondering what it sounded like in an acoustic form, so I will share with you that it was a lot of rapidly strummed acoustic guitar and hand drums. Nick Rhodes was playing an organ of some sort, probably a Farfisa, though I can't confirm or deny that fact as his set up was on the opposite side of the stage from where we were and we didn't have a very good view of him. We did however have a great view of John Taylor throughout the evening, who was wearing a long hanging nightcap for most of the show. I'm not sure what that was about but somehow against all odds he made it work. Maybe he was cold? February in Toronto is often a very chilly time of year...

On the subject of what they were wearing, the whole band dressed in variations on a theme of burgundy velvet. John Taylor wore burgundy velvet pants with a white night shirt and the aforementioned hat, and I think he may have had a jacket at one point. Simon LeBon wore a relaxed burgundy velvet suit, as did Nick Rhodes, though his seemed more of a formal cut. Warren Cuccurullo wore burgundy velvet pants and a vest, and I want to say that he was shirtless for at least part of the show. He also had this hanging medallion shaped like a heart that hung from his belt. That was a fashion choice that never really made it very far, and I'm kind of grateful for that...

So yeah, they opened with "Planet Earth", and it set the tone well for the rest of the evening. This show was early in the tour before the band had done their own appearance on "MTV Unplugged", so there was some question as to how well they'd be able to pull off the whole acoustic thing, but they were actually quite successful at it. Y'see, despite being lumped in with a lot of other eighties artists where style was held in higher regard than substance, Duran Duran are actually a really talented band, really talented musicians. John Taylor is an amazing bass player, and hanging heart belt or not, Warren Cuccurullo is a solid guitarist. I couldn't tell you who was playing drums for them on that tour, but I'm sure that they had a great drummer at the time, and I will defend Nick Rhodes' keyboard playing 'til my dying breath. They're all solid musicians and they've made a vast number of really well written songs over their career, many of which lend themselves well to acoustic arrangements because the songwriting and structure are so strong to begin with. I've always believed that good songwriting can translate in almost any genre, and that night Duran Duran were able to prove that they didn't need any synths or studio polish to make it work, they could deliver the goods on their own.

Over the course of the evening, they played a few songs from the new album, along with a selection of hits like "Hungry Like the Wolf", "Rio", and "Save a Prayer", all of which sounded great in stripped down forms. "The Chauffeur" in particular worked really well, though a lot of that comes from the fact that it's probably their best song anyway, so, y'know, further to my point about good songwriting being able to translate in almost any genre, it's not a surprise that it would sound good in a different form.

It was a really good show, and I feel that tour went a long way towards giving a new level of credibility to Duran Duran that they may not have had otherwise. It proved that they had a lot more substance than people thought, and in many ways that may have contributed to a success that continues even now almost thirty years later. Yes, they're a nostalgia act, but they have an appeal and respect that many of their peers haven't been able to sustain, and I really think that part of it has to do with them taking the chance on doing this acoustic tour, taking the chance to prove there was more to them than they were being given credit for at the time.

Admittedly Duran Duran's acoustic tour was a brief moment in their history, and within a few months they were already back on the road with the kind of full electric set that fans have come to expect. I saw them again when they returned to Toronto later that summer, a show at Kingswood Music Theatre with full production values and all the synths you would have wanted. A lot less hand drums, and no matching suits, but still pretty great. They played "The Chauffeur" that night too, but I'm hard pressed to say which was better. There's something to be said for a full on version of a classic song, but sometimes it's nice to hear a stripped down version too...

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