He’s not the new king of pop yet, but Bruno Mars makes a pretty good prince. The chameleonic Hawaiian hitmaker hit the AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday night (sold out, like many of the concerts on his Moonshine Jungle tour), with slamming old school soul and showmanship. Plus some new school sex, a touch of irony and – for all the heartfelt ballads - darkness too. Motown and Michael Jackson are in Mars’ lineage, but Prince is too.
“We came to get you dancing, get you shaking!” Mars told the crowd soon after pounding junglebeat drums and animal howls heralded the fall of a golden palm graphic curtain – setting up animal passion in a self-consciously glam setting. He took the stage with Moonshine, a starry-eyed escape fantasy that might have been the poppiest song in the show. He’d end up in a very different kind of fantasy.
Mars frames his prodigious and rock solid talent - fantastic vocal chops, from that soaring falsetto to a subterranean Barry White growl, smooth dance skills, and wow-em drum and guitar solos – with 60’s and 70’s retro-styled showmanship. His charismatic, harmonizing vocal partner Phillip Lawrence leads a stunningly multi-talented band; three horn players (on trumpet, sax and trombone), a guitarist and bassist who not only play fantastically, but sing harmony and dance almost constantly, in Motown style hip-snaking wedges and swaying, rhythmically stomping lines, mugging and pumping up the crowd. Only the drummer and synthesizer player stayed put. The gleaming black stage striped with gold looked like a fantasy set for a ‘60’s TV dance show – we didn’t get new school pyrotechnics till the end.
Mars, in his trademark vest and derby type hat, mixed multiple classic pop genres with seamless virtuosity and just a hint of a wink. He’s a total showman. His cover of Money (That’s What I Want) featured Mars in a brief, raging Chuck Berry style Johnny Be Good guitar solo, then seguing into the reggae-beat Billionaire, his hit with Travie McCoy (they matched in theme, if not musically). He turned the gospel-ish If I Knew into an extended, exhilarating break-down, with riffs from the Smokey Robinson classic You Really Got a Hold on Me, and Mars leading the band in a hilarious mock seduction of a girl in the front row, each of them competing to do the most outrageous pick-up lines and moves. Show Me and Our First Time had Mars in full crooning falsetto, sexed-up Marvin Gaye mode (but with a much more explicitly banging pelvis).
If there’s a fault with Mars’ capacity to entertain and perform any pop genre perfectly, it’s that he hasn’t yet established his own identity, with an individual musical style and stature on par with his idols. He’s more himself on a ballad like When I Was Your Man, accompanied only by piano, singing full-out, rich and soaring, then howling with regret and not even a hint of irony. On the orchestral pop grandeur of Grenade, and the joyful Just The Way You Are, with the crowd singing happily along, he’s just himself.
Those songs cloak pain and love in sweet pop structures. But Mars closed his show with Gorilla, a raging proclamation of lust and sex that teeters astonishingly between being over-the-top and a genuinely powerful darkness. The video for Gorilla is ironic. But there was no irony or holding back when Mars performed it Friday, just furious passion channeled in howls and piercing falsetto, the band blasting and fire shooting off behind him. It was a performance worthy of Prince, and the kind of song that might transform Bruno Mars into another kind of pop royalty.