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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bruno Mars w/ Janelle Monáe @ The Rave

May 24, 2011

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Playing to the young ladies that made up the majority of his audience with his sly smile Tuesday night at the Rave's Eagles Ballroom, Bruno Mars seemed to well know himself to be a handsome cat. A sufficient sense of humility about his fortunate position in being able to sing his catchy, international hit tunes before thousands of people counterbalanced that cockiness enough to keep him from coming off as a jerk.

It helps, of course, that most of those tunes are catchy like a cold virus in an elevator, he sings them in a soulfully sweet croon and he's enough of a musical polyglot to smoothly incorporate a wide stylistic pallet into an aesthetic with wide appeal. Even if he's rather convinced of it, the dude's good at what he's doing.

He did it at the Eagles with his hype man/co-producer/featured background singer Phillip Lawrence on his side of a band featuring a full brass complement and Mars himself playing guitar that rarely got very heavy on feedback. Per the design of the posters hawked after the show, if Mars's "Hooligans in Wonderland" tour was meant to follow the template of a '60s R&B revue, he got the form down pretty well.

His music, however inspired by the sounds of the format the show's structure aped, has the kind of current flavor that has made numbers such as the female-affirming "Just The Way You Are" and less complimentary "Grenade" chart toppers in multiple countries. Wisely enough, he saved most of his own big singles for the second half of the show, filling slots earlier in his 80-minute set with equally infectious album cuts such as "Liquor Store Blues" and fuller versions of rap numbers on which he was the hook singer, notably Travie McCoy's execrable "Billionaire" and Mars' first taste of massive radio play, B.O.B.'s more sublime "Nothin' On You." The guy only has an album and a half on the market and has to keep up the energy for a headlining set somehow, yes? To the credit of his cleverness, he preceded his fleshing out of the McCoy piece with a sufficiently rocking take on Barrett Strong's "Money."

In his trademark fedora, Harley Davidson T-shirt and black leather vest, Mars may not have been able to help but turn on his charm, but, even with jumbo screens flanking him on both sides, he and his bandmates looked a bit dwarfed by the enormity of their stage set. He might do well to cultivate a greater sense of intimacy for his next round of shows. But the gals in attendance to see and hear the man of their current dreams (and to their credit, they were less shrill in their appreciation than might be the distaff denizens at a Justin Bieber gig) likely didn't mind much.

Mars also could also maximize his stage impact by not choosing opening acts who threaten to upstage him. Janelle Monáe made good on that threat. Given nearly as much time as the headliner, she manifested a bizarro retro-nuevo R&B alternate reality where the ghost of Screamnin' Jay Hawkins fraternizes with Erykah Badu at her iciest and Funkadelic at their freakiest while the Pointer Sisters, back when they wore dresses from the '40s, look-and sing-on in shocked delight. While commercial radio hasn't yet been co-operative to Monáe's cause, late night TV chat shows, press and music videos that represent her unique sonic and sartorial prerogative have abetted appreciation for her, and the throng at the Eagles seemed well primed. Monáe's crowd surfing and leading everyone in some la-la's in one number toward the end of her set humanized her sexy, classy strangeness while enhancing it. She's a force of nature and deserves to be at least as big a star as Mars. 

Opener Mayer Hawthorne may have paled by comparison, but that's no slight to him. A showman, though not too flamboyant about it, he has a sense of self just grand enough to make him a bigger name than his slot on indie label Stones Throw Records makes him now. Wonderful and heartfelt as he and his band are, though, one could justifiably get the impression that Hawthorne would be content mining recreations of '60s and '70s Northern soul fit for sampling by '80s and '90s rappers. Here's to believing Hawthorne has it in him to rise above his formalism and add more individualized twists to his niche soon.