Bruno Mars, like Justin Timberlake, is celebrated in part because he is not afraid to shamelessly, and skillfully, borrow from the past. Mars’ fleet, hot-foot stepping at the Smoothie King Center on Saturday (June 7) was torn right out of the James Brown playbook. His musicians’ choreography – all but the keyboardist and drummer spent most of the show up front, moving in tandem with Mars – was in the style of any number of R&B and soul bands of yesteryear. Timberlake aside, such showmanship is something of a lost art among the 40-and-under crowd.
But neither is the 28-year-old Mars a retro act. His R&B come-ons are decidedly contemporary. And when his musicians dropped to hump the stage in honor of a bridal party down front, the moment was far more R. Kelly than Smokey Robinson.
Even if he wasn’t born an entertainer, Mars was groomed to be one. By age two, little Peter Hernandez was performing as a pint-sized Elvis impersonator with his family’s nightclub act in Hawaii. Movie and TV appearances followed.
After high school, he moved to Los Angeles in search of stardom that wasn’t based on novelty. He found it, and then some. After co-writing hits for other artists as one-third of the Smeezingtons production team, his debut album, 2010’s "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," yielded several of his own. So did 2012’s "Unorthodox Jukebox," which topped Billboard’s album chart. His place in pop culture’s pantheon was further solidified by a dual host/musical guest turn on "Saturday Night Live" – cue additional Timberlake comparisons — and, more spectacularly, his halftime performance at this year’s Super Bowl.
Tickets for his New Orleans show went on sale shortly after the Super Bowl, and sold out within an hour (a smattering of additional tickets were released later). Saturday’s crowd was likely the largest the arena has hosted for a concert so far this year.
Well into the second year of the Moonshine Jungle Tour – his first as an arena headliner — Mars and his band, the Hooligans, have their 90-minute show down cold. Even on less-inspired nights, it is still solidly entertaining, though he has more to learn about the art of commanding arena-sized rooms. Given his skill set, he might also let himself indulge in occasional spontaneity.
His first-ever concert in New Orleans – not counting a May 17 appearance at a high-dollar fundraiser in the Warehouse District for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation – felt like his standard show. Working the front of a shiny, open stage flanked by an (underutilized) LED wall, Mars announced that he expected much moving, dancing and shaking from the audience, which would be easier to accomplish without cell phones in hand. (He did not allow news organizations to photograph the show.)
He dressed in dashing casual: pointy-toe, buckled ankle boots, black pants, black T-shirt, open black-and-white short-sleeve shirt, thin chains, long red scarf, black hat. Members of the band – it included three horn men; Mars’ brother Eric Hernandez on drums; and vocalist/hype man Philip Lawrence, also a member of the Smeezingtons — wore various combinations of white, black and red.
His attire remained unchanged even as he and the Hooligans switched musical styles at will. They cruised through the easy funk of "Treasure" as a disco ball the size of a compact car hovered over the stage. They detoured into dancehall reggae with "Show Me." Mars slipped into a bedroom falsetto for Genuwine’s "Pony."
He and the band co-joined the early Motown single "Money (That’s What I Want)" with "Billionaire," the similarly themed hit Mars and the Smeezingtons co-wrote for Travie McCoy. During the former, Mars wound up on his knees, wailing on the whammy bar of a hollow-body red Gibson guitar. During the latter, he exaggerated the clearing of his throat, playing to several young women down front.
"If I Knew," he declared, is one of his favorite songs from "Unorthodox Jukebox," and it was easy to see why. Over the bed of a church-style organ, he testified, pleading his case to a girl. His three horn players set aside their instruments to spin, Temptations-style. Mid-stride, Mars paused and held up a hand, a signal for a crew member crouched in front of the stage to toss him a black towel. The singer caught it, wiped his face, and tossed it aside – a minor moment, but one that was likely rehearsed meticulously so that it seemed effortless.
He expressed disappointment with the response to the uptempo "Runaway Baby," then brought the band down in what was obviously a planned gimmick. After a cover of rapper B.o.B.’s Nothin’ On You" – another Smeezingtons project — Mars returned to his own ever-growing catalog of hits.
Backed only by a piano, he showcased his supple tenor’s emotional range on "When I Was Your Man." In this confession of regret, he is not the cocksure pop star, but a humbled man who realizes too late what he has lost, and why. The shrieks and screams that resulted indicated many women in the room would have taken him back.
He capped off the fireballs of "Grenade" with a crisp, tidy guitar solo. A lush if oddly placed keyboard solo by John Fossit ushered in "Just the Way You Are" in all its pop glory.
Checking off yet another box, Mars opened the encore behind a drum kit for a brief solo. Back among the Hooligans – and with Hernandez restored to the drum chair – he presided over "Locked Out of Heaven," another homerun hit.
The final "Gorilla" was a curious show closer, even with the cascades of sparks that dramatically silhouetted the star on an elevated platform at the rear of the stage. It was an awkward move by a performer who is rarely guilty of one.
Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter @KeithSpera.Tags: concert, movie, music, release, singer, tour, tv