Bruno Mars at Xcel Energy Center, 6/21/14

Bruno Mars at Xcel Energy Center, 6/21/14
Photo provided; credit: Florent Déchard

Bruno Mars
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bruno Mars is a real pro. Each aspect of his Saturday night performance of the Xcel -- his dancing, his singing, his guitar work, and, of course, his songwriting -- displayed a broad, self-assured knowledge of pop history while slyly positioning the star himself as its inevitable culmination. But charmer that Mars is, he too often treats his casual mastery as a sufficient end in itself. His ace mimicry glistens with the polish of craft rather than blazing with the spark of artistry, and his admirable versatility can verge on the facile.

The show began with the fall of a scrim adorned with palm trees. In a line across the front of the stage stretched Mars's band, the Hooligans, including a three-man horn section that doubled as a backup dance crew. The star himself, a boyish Filipino-Latino looker, stood toward the center of this line, stylishly dressed-down in trilby and flowered shirt, first among equals, just one of the boys. The first two songs were questionable choices from Mars's latest album,

Unorthodox Jukebox

(a far less heretical collection than its title pretends): "Moonshine" is little more than pleasant mid-tempo dance-pop and "Natalie" is a screed against a "gold-digging bitch" that jars coming from one of pop's supposed nice guys.

Throughout, Mars rooted through the past like a junk drawer, integrating music styles from different eras with a carefree disregard for historical accuracy. It was good fun when it worked, as on the light funk song "Treasure," which imagines Michael Jackson and Prince peacefully coexisting just around the time Reagan was first elected. It was an undifferentiated retro mess when it didn't, as when Mars broke into a Chuck Berry solo while covering the old Motown hit "Money (That's What I Want)." He followed "Money" with his own "Billionaire," a far inferior celebration of pop acquisitiveness, during which I was distracted by two sisters, maybe about 7 and 10, trying to decide whether they could sing "fucking" with their mom one seat over.

Phillip Lawrence, one of Mars's two partners in the songwriting and production crew the Smeezingtons, flanked the singer for much of the show, serving as backup singer, auxiliary dancer, and a rather corny hype man. During "Billionaire" he reworked the chant from Ronnie Hudson's "West Coast Poplock" (which Dr. Dre adapted for the mid-'90s 2pac hit "California Love") to ingratiate himself to us locals, singing "St. Paul/ Knows how to party" and "In the city/ City of St. Paul." (We seemed just moments away from a round of "When I say 'Saint'/ You say 'Paul.'") Not long after Lawrence was channeling Sebastian the Crab yah-mon-ing a fake patois intro to the tourist-reggae number "Show Me."

But Mars did need Lawrence's help. The star rarely connected with the audience in a way that might frame a Bruno Mars show as something more than a series of well-performed Bruno Mars songs. He's the Swiss pocket knife of pop, or maybe its combo platter: the ideal choice when you're not in the mood to choose. And while Mars's virtuosity never feels merely studied or coldly synthetic, neither does it feel lived in. Mars remains something of a cipher, a repository of styles and skills he glides through as efficiently as bullet points on a resume.

And so, during "Our First Time," Mars digressed into snatches of Ginuwine's "Pony" and R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)." "Marry You," which playfully treats that sacred bond as "something dumb to do," a knot easily untied when the hangover ebbs, alternates between two '60s girl-group moods -- moony ballad and footloose shimmy -- and Mars prefaced it with a snippet of Santo & Johnny's late '50s Hawaiian-style instrumental hit "Sleepwalk." And during "Runaway Baby," Mars mock-accused the crowd of being too quiet and said his band could be even quieter, leading into the "A little bit softer now" bit from the Isleys' "Shout." Somehow, he was both trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Bruno Mars at Xcel Energy Center, 6/21/14
Photo provided; credit: Florent Déchard

But the final third of Mars's main set was dedicated to the gift that made him a radio star: an unerring ability to convey credible sincerity. "Nothing on You" is essentially just a promise not to fuck around, but Mars's vocal transforms him into A+ boyfriend material. He suggested that those in the audience with "a special someone" should use the tune as an excuse to commence canoodling, then added "For the ladies who don't have that special someone -- don't trip, don't trip. We got you." With that, Lawrence and the horn players busted out stripper moves humping the air, the floor, and anything else within pelvic reach. It was kind of dumb and kind of gross and kind of fun.

Mars then left the stage to keyboardist Phredley Brown, who proceeded to barrage us with quasi-classical piano clusters, his solo turn long enough for a good half-dozen Lady Gaga costume changes. Mars, of course, came back dressed just the same as when he'd left, plunging into "Grenade," a garish celebration of masochism for which the band ratcheted up the bombast all the way to "The Final Countdown" levels. Mars finished his main set with "Just the Way You Are." The song's melody is lovely, even if its lyrics are questionable, and at long last it offered a glimpse of the communal affirmation that arena pop shows exist to provide.

Mars reappeared not long after on a drum riser, slapping out a proficient solo punctuated by James Brown vocal samples -- a bit of showmanship that come off as excessive throat-clearing before an encore you could call "Bruno Mars: After Dark." When you start out as a sensitive PG balladeer, after all, "maturity" means coming to terms with s-e-x, and true to form, Mars hedges his bets when he closes the bedroom door behind him.

"Locked Out of Heaven" is an earnest swoon that envisions getting laid as spiritual practice, with Mars strewing Sting-like nonsense syllables to trick us into thinking the beat recalls the Police rather than the Fixx. The buildup is so exhilarating that the chorus itself feels anticlimactic, and if you don't want to treat that as metaphor I won't either. In contrast, "Gorilla" is a literal chest-pound of a fuck romp, a carnal cartoon, and Mars owned up to its absurdity with an arsenal of pyrotechnics behind him. In bed, as on stage, Mars seems determined to prove his range. You'll have to decide for yourself how you feel about that in the morning.

Critic's bias: As a radio listener, I've appreciated Mars's hooky good nature as an alternative to scuzzes like Jason Derulo and Chris Brown. So I went to this show hoping to be dazzled into fandom, honest. But Mars lacks the flaws that made his influences geniuses -- Michael Jackson's haunted paranoia, Prince's pretentious egotism, James Brown's iron-fisted brutality -- and those guys are so far out of his league I feel a little silly debunking those comparisons. Mars has got a job to do, which he goes about with enthusiasm and no evident cynicism.

The crowd: Aside from a few all-girl crews decked out in hats like their idol, this was less of a dress-to-impress crowd than some Xcel shows I've attended. You'd expect a big-tenter like Mars to have cross-generational appeal, and there were indeed plenty of families, with moms and dads present as fans rather than chaperones and children seeming strangely un-embarrassed to have to hear their parents sing, "Your sex takes me to paradise."

Show Me
Our First Time/Pony/Ignition (Remix)
Sleepwalk/Marry Me
If I Knew
Runaway Baby/Shout
Nothing on You
When I Was Your Man
Just the Way You Are

Locked Out of Heaven

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