Most solo artists bask in the spotlight surrounding themselves with anonymous musicians and dancers. Not Bruno Mars. His hit-filled concert Wednesday at Time Warner Cable Arena was as much about the whole package - the music, the songs, the choreography, and the players - as it was about the songwriter and showman himself.
Mars posted a photo of his recent cold-fighting remedies (from Mucinex and Sudafed to Afrin and Echinacea) on Twitter Tuesday, so there was some speculation that his performance or voice might suffer. That wasn’t the case. From the opening notes of “Moonshine” to the closer “Gorilla,” his voice and moves held out.
It didn’t hurt that each member of his band exhibited personality and individuality. Mars didn’t relegate them to the sidelines either. Six members of the eight piece band, which included three horn players that double as backup singers (how economical), flanked Mars throughout the night. All seem to double as hypemen. Bassist and North Carolinian Jamareo Artis funked like he’d played with Fishbone and keyboardist John Fossit bounced, headbanged, and ran in place during “Runaway Baby.”
They dressed not in Motown-inspired uniforms of old, but more as a playful group of `70s Hooligans (the name of the band) in mismatched plaids, solids, and stripes, butterfly collars, and - in one case - a black fishnet tank. They channeled a street corner doo-wop gang from the `50s, the crew from Fat Albert (minus the Fat), and the Jackson 5.
Following “Natalie” and “Treasure” from his latest album “Unorthodox Jukebox,” Mars reached back to one of the first hits he had a hand in - Travie McCoy’s “Billionaire,” which Mars co-wrote and appeared on. It wasn’t the only time he referenced someone else’s hit but instead of sticking to the hip-hop flavored original version of B.O.B.’s “Nothin’ On You” (which he also co-wrote), Mars kicked it off as a largely acoustic quiet number that morphed into a grand, horn-laden, `70s-style showpiece.
At one point my friend said, “So he’s channeling Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Paul Anka?” Mars has impersonated at least two of those as a tribute artist and he’s an old-style crooner with a classic look wearing a casual, but stylish leopard print shirt and black vest with his signature fedora. There’s definitely that feel, but it’s not a retro act. “Marry You” was a fun, grand throwback with Mars taking one of two very Prince-like guitar solos. He exhibited his skill on piano and drums as well. The latter introduced the encore of “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Gorilla.”
Instead of multiple screens and an over-the-top, multi-level stage, Mars and his band, like Beyonce recently, stuck to the lower level in front of a horizontal screen the length of the stage. Keys and drums were only a few feet above them on a platform behind them. You could imagine the same show - aside from the lights and backdrops - being performed in a large theater or club. It added the illusion of intimacy to the show.
The crowd, which ranged from tweens to senior citizens - ate it up too. They squealed for his jokey “damn” segment and laughed along as group members took turns using bad pickup lines on a female fan in the front row.
The early momentum snowballed at the end with “When I Was Your Man” (which he called the most difficult song to write and sing), “Grenade,” and “Just the Way You Are.” The introductions and thank yous at the end seemed appropriately final, but of course the group returned the obligatory encore.
Opening act Fitz and the Tantrums had the crowd on its feet early, clapping on cue to dance-pop singles like its current mix of new wave and modern soul, “Out of My League” (which should be a massive hit). With an impressive light show and charismatic band leaders Michael Fitzpatrick and Noelle Scaggs, the group put on a lively, engaging set. It turned “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” into a soulful jam with jumping horns much like Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox might have done during the Eurythmics’ horn-happy “Would I Lie to You” period.
Like other acts we’ve seen this summer, both indicated that even live music in a big arena is still at its core about music.