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Paul Mann: Chic with Nile Rodgers and Duran Duran Rock California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles

Legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist Nile Rodgers opens the show with Chic on July 27 at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.
Legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist Nile Rodgers opens the show with Chic on July 27 at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles. (L. Paul Mann / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

One of the hottest double-bill concert tours of the summer brought down a Chinese rocket on July 27 at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles.

Chic, led by legendary music producer, singer-songwriter and guitarist Nile Rodgers, opened the show with a party-infused music medley of dance music hits. The 63-year-old Rodgers is a national treasure. He began a successful music career with his former partner, Bernard Edwards, back in 1976, and together they formed Chic, one of the most successful dance music bands of the disco era.

But it was Rodgers' work as a music producer that has brought him the greatest success, producing hit after hit for more than 40 years. The list of pop music stars who have worked with and revere him include Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Sheena Easton, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Madonna, INXS, Britney Spears, Spoons and, more recently, Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, Avicii, Disclosure, Sam Smith, Pitbull, Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Nervo, Laura Mvula and Keith Urban as well as, of course, Duran Duran.

At the 2014 Moogfest in Asheville, N.C., Rodgers gave a lecture on his life as a musician in New York City. He spoke of the trials of being born to junkie parents, including a 13-year-old mom and having to fend for himself at a young age. At one point, he skipped school for several months and sneaked into a nearby movie theater every day and watched nearly every movie of the time, giving him quite an advanced world view for a child in the hood.

His early fascination with The Beatles led him to take up guitar, and he managed to settle in as part of the house band at the Apollo Theater, when he was still a teenager. This allowed him to play with an amazing roster of top talent, including Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Maxine Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, Betty Wright, Earl Lewis and the Channels, Parliament-Funkadelic and many others.

Beaming widely from the minute he took the stage, Rodgers was living in the moment during his sunset set at the Chumash grandstand arena. He led the band straight into some Chic classics to begin his 75-minute set and danced around each member of the veteran group, making eye contact and leading them into a dance groove. The disco classics included "Good Times," "I Want Your Love" and "Le Freak."

Shortly into the set, Rodgers took the time to tell his story of discovering five years ago that he had life-threatening cancer. His doctor told him to get his affairs in order. For Rodgers, that translated into trying to write as many songs as he could. Five years later, he finds himself in the Paso Robles sunshine declaring himself cancer free and happy to be playing the fair and still producing hit songs.

The set continued with some of Rodgers’ greatest songwriting and producing hits, from Diana Ross’ "I’m Coming Out" and "Upside Down" and Madonna’s "Like a Virgin" to Bowie’s "Let’s Dance" and Sister Sledge’s "We Are Family." The music sent the crowd into a dancing frenzy. The biggest cheers came for his recent hit song, "Get Lucky" with Daft Punk, and the Bowie classic "Let’s Dance."

But the real dance party broke out during the encore, with the band playing the Chic classic "Good Times." Contest winners and VIP ticket holders got to swarm the band onstage, along with the official fair queen and her court and some sort of strange twerking mascot. It was a spectacular feel-good finale that felt like the end of a headline set.

As the summer twilight faded over the arena, the excitement in the crowd was reaching a fever pitch, with ardent fans holding up their favorite Duran Duran album covers and squinting for the first views of the band. Just after the lights went out, copious amounts of fog billowed across the stage as red floodlights came up, revealing lead singer Simon Le Bon descending a silver staircase.

As ardent fans began to shriek, bassist John Taylor and guitarist Dom Brown emerged from the smoke at the sides of the stage, and drummer Roger Taylor broke into the drum beat for the title track on the band's latest album, Paper Gods.

Hard-core fans immediately noticed that missing from the band was keyboardist Nick Rhodes, who, according to Le Bon, “is not with us due to a family emergency. We miss him dearly.” California native MNDR, a singer, songwriter, keyboardist and producer, was introduced as the replacement for Rhodes for the time being. Backup singers Anna Ross and Jessie Wagner rounded out the band with great backing vocals and sensual dance routines.

The band stuck to the 18-song set list that they have been performing on their extensive world tour but managed to personalize it to the crowd. Just like Rodgers' earlier set, Le Bon expressed his gratitude for living in the moment, frequently bantering with the crowd. “How are the hamburgers?” he asked at one point, as the smell of barbecue wafted through the air. “We flew in from the East Coast. You are so lucky to live in such a beautiful place,” he recounted, referring to the remote Central California town, surrounded by majestic mountains.

Speaking of Rodgers, halfway through the set, Le Bon paid homage to the master musician and then invited him out to play with the band on one of their biggest hit songs that the prolific music master had indeed produced for them, “Notorious.” Rodgers stayed on to play another song from the band's latest album, Paper Gods, which he also helped them produce, showing his and Duran Duran’s continued relevance in the pop music world. The catchy new song, "Pressure Off," features a guest appearance by young pop diva Janelle Monae, as well as Rodgers on guitar. A video with Monae appeared behind the band as they jammed with Rodgers. In fact, there was a masterful video synchronized to each song in the set, sometimes employing live camera feeds to mix live shots of the band into the videos.

But the band may not have even noticed the most spectacular special effect of the night, which was completely random. About an hour into their set, the sky just behind the band lit up in a fiery display. No one really knew what to make of the spectacular explosion. It turned out that a Chinese commercial rocket had fallen out of orbit and just happened to break up in full view of the arena, disintegrating into a showering trail of fire.

The band played a particularly moving tribute to Bowie with "Planet Earth/Space Oddity," while the image of Bowie towered over the stage on the video screen. As the band launched into crowd favorites like "The Reflex" and "Girls on Film," there was a massive blast of confetti drowning the crowd.

Before the encore performance of "Save a Prayer," Le Bonn dedicated the song to the challenging times that we live in and asked everyone who had a cell phone to hold them high in the air. The sky lit up with the devices as well as with at least one pair of a young tween's light-up sneakers that he removed from his feet and waived over his head. Then there was one final song, "Rio," complete with massive bouncing beach balls passing through the crowd.

It was a magical night for the performers and their fans alike.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.

Duran Duran, on stage at the California Mid-State Fair, performs a song from the 18-song set list the band has been performing during its extensive world tour. Click to view larger
Duran Duran, on stage at the California Mid-State Fair, performs a song from the 18-song set list the band has been performing during its extensive world tour. (L. Paul Mann / Noozhawk photo)

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