The past two years have been very good to Bruno Mars — the stage alias of 25-year-old Hawaiian singer-songwriter Peter Hernandez. His penchant for whimsical, soft pop hooks has landed him on the charts on multiple occasions, both as a songwriter for other artists (Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You!,” B.o.B’s “Nothin’ On You”) and as a solo performer. Lyrically, he operates within the standard tropes of relationship-themed songcraft, and as a composer he’s certainly not reinventing the wheel. But instead, ever-so-subtly, Mars is able to repackage and fuse popular genres from America’s past into one slightly different, but wholly familiar sound.
The Gibson Amphitheatre audience was on its feet for most of Mars’ hour-and-a-half concert, singing along to both hits and deep album cuts. As a live performer, Mars is impressive, his vocal gifts allowing him to infuse heavy doses of emotion and subtle improvisations into his song’s seemingly straightforward melodies. From the very beginning, Mars had complete control of the audience, easily engaging in call-and-responses and charming his young base with a polished dose of playful banter, dimpled smiles and Elvis-derived hip thrusts. All of the stage tactics were perfectly-timed, allowing Mars to coordinate numerous musical breaks with his band; as he often slowed down a song’s coda in order to serenade the audience with just his vocals and guitar as accompaniment.
Most of the set relied upon material from Mars’ debut, “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” as he ran through extended versions of “Liquor Store Blues,” “Just The Way You Are” and “The Lazy Song.” The two early collaborative singles “Nothin’ On You'” and “Billionare” were also given abbreviated readings, with Mars prefacing the latter track with a straightforward cover version of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).”
The bulk of the songs were consistently pleasant, rarely straying from the simple, laid-back pop formula of the major singles, and vacillating between sticky sweet romantic odes and more scornful, breakup-inspired fare. But two numbers stood out: the howling, grunge-guitar led “Grenade” and the closing ballad “Talking to the Moon.” On the former, Mars showcased his chops as a guitar player, indulging in an impressive, angst-fueled solo midway through the tune. “Moon” was the last song of the night and easily stands as Mars most enduring and finely-crafted statement. The song is emotional, wide-eyed and evocative of the ’70s soft-rock boom, closely mirroring the epic yet refined arrangements of bands like the Carpenters and Chicago.
Opener Janelle Monae brought a refreshingly unpredictable approach to her stage show that revealed the up-and-comer as a talent with seemingly unlimited potential. Her voice literally tore through the arena, undulating between a tempered croon and a high-pitched howl. As a performer, she truly has the capability to transcend Mars and other acolytes of the mainstream simply by following her muse and continuing to employ an utterly idiosyncratic vision of what it means to make pop music in the new millennium. At any given moment, she was able to evoke Prince, Kurt Cobain, Tina Turner, Joan Jett or some fractured hybrid — race, sex and time don’t seem to be constraints for Ms. Monae.