Live Review: Bruno Mars orbits planet Hollywood
The facile showbiz sheen in his hits keeps the singer from tapping real emotions.
Nothing says Taking Care of Business like a costume, be it a cape and well-coiffed pompadour, a coy, winning smile and a sleeveless jean jacket, or a team of sleek, matching red suits. These details, the visual signifiers of an onstage persona, are, as much as the physical distance, what separates artist from audience. If you want to command the stage, the theory goes, you have dress like you deserve it.
That’s not new, though it’s a notion that has waxed and waned over the years: whether to rock the stage in your Sunday best or your Saturday worst. Of late, artists have been looking particularly sharp, none more so than at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Sunday night, when a triple bill of Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae and Mayer Hawthorne presented a combination concert/fashion show that focused aspects of style both visual and musical.
The cast, in order of appearance: Los Angeles-by-way-of-Detroit soul singer Mayer Hawthorne and his band the County, whose Motown-inspired rhythm & blues updated a classic groove-heavy sound with a 21st century urgency; Atlanta proto-funk/soul superstar Janelle Monae, who combined the onstage thrills of 1960s James Brown with updated rhythms and unparalleled control; and Bruno Mars, whose breakout hit album title, “Doo Wop and Hooligans,” captures the era that he acknowledges as one of his chief inspirations: feather-light 1950s doo wop, classic pop, and smoothly crooned, proto-soul music.
Hawthorne was a perfect opener: fearless in his enthusiasm and confident in his ability to rile an early evening crowd more interested in texting and gossiping than paying attention. He built a buzz the old-fashioned way: through a sweaty live performance and a crack band with machine-tight grooves, both of which cut through typical Angeleno indifference on Sunday night.
Janelle Monae built on that energy, and then some. She’s one of the best live performers on the planet right now; any headliner brave (and smart) enough to allow the Atlanta-based artist to open for him deserves kudos not only for his taste but also for his confidence. Backed by a 14-piece band dressed entirely in black and white (the only color onstage was Monae’s hot pink lipstick), she harnessed a string quartet, back-up singers, a three-piece brass and standard rock and pop instrumentation to deliver the funk, replete with a show-stopper of an ending in which all the musicians collapsed onstage and faked death.
Prior to their demise, though, she owned the amphitheatre. At one split-second moment during her set at the Gibson, she raised her arms like an Olympic gymnast landing a gold medal jump, then moved into a round of Madonna-inspired vogueing, then dropped into a Michael Jackson moonwalk. The crowd screamed in honor, and when she then moved into the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” she brashly tackled a song that only the fearless attempt. Monae did a James Brown shuffle during “Cold War,” her 2010 hit, and floated around the stage throwing imaginary punches while clips of Muhammed Ali in the boxing ring played on the screens above.
Headliner Bruno Mars was dressed like a hooligan, or at least the Hollywood version of one, the kind who gets into a little trouble but manages to elude punishment by employing a smile and a wink. A songwriter who, with his production team the Smeezingtons, is responsible for some of the most ubiquitous hits of the past few years -- many of which, such as “Grenade” and “The Lazy Song,” he performed on Sunday. Mars looks like a young Elvis Presley – especially when he and the band offered a version of the classic rock ‘n’ roll song “Money” -- and has the charm and natural charisma to own any stage he’s on.
Unfortunately, he knows this – how could he not, what with all the ladies shreiking every time he touched his hair or pumped his pelvis? -- and his performance suffered because of it. It’s hard to take Mars seriously as a songwriter when he coyly and deliberately uses innuendo to fuel the fire of his fans’ desire. It feels cloying, a reflex he suffers from in his songwriting, too: He presents himself as a young-and-in-love innocent who says all the right things to a girl. “Just the Way You Are” is a gem of a pop song, but it’s aspirational pop music: for the most part endearing and harmless but lacking enough lyrical weight to suggest that Mars is interested in anything other than delivering the exact right middle-of-the-road sentiment at the exact right moment in time.
“Leave that Hollywood stuff at the door,” he said by way of introduction, suggesting that the hardened detachment of the cool kids give way to wave-your-hands-in-the-air freedom, and the fans obliged. But until he starts tackling emotions that don’t have a Hollywood sheen to them, or that trade in shallow, predictable love song sentiments, Mars’ dismissal of superficiality feels like lip service, the aesthetic equivalent of telling a girl what she wants to hear so he can get her into the sack.
-- Randall Roberts
Photos: Bruno Mars, top, and Janelle Monae. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times