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Live Review: Bruno Mars orbits planet Hollywood

The facile showbiz sheen in his hits keeps the singer from tapping real emotions.

Bruno Mars phiss

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.


Caught in Mars' orbit

Janelle Monae in Wondaland

Mayer Hawthorne covers all sorts of musical ground with his new "Impressions EP"

-- Randall Roberts

Photos: Bruno Mars, top, and Janelle Monae. Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (8)

Lordy, if one more person insults the King (Elvis) like that by saying this 4 ft, fuzzy haired bum is anything like him Imma scream!!! Ughhhhhhh I also cannot stand his whinny nasal sound he calls singing and can anyone tell me what is good about the Lazy Song? I feel like I'm listening to my Grandpa's old tunes, boring as hell! Tell me, did this guy spend all his drug money on buying off the inudstry including peeps like you?

Mars was the best of the night, not only b/c we were fans of him but b/c he's 1 of the best songwriters of this decade and 1 of the best live performers of this day and age. All of the fans screaming is b/c we really enjoy his live show just the way it is and he's lacking nothing even without the pelvic thrusts. He's ready for the Staples Center now and we'd enjoyed the same way, that's the reason why he has to headline over Janelle Monae even though she and Mayer Hawthorne are great!

Bruno Mars is one of the best new singers to light up a stage. Whatever side of the bed the reviewer got up on, it was clearly the wrong side.

Jeanell MOnae is one of my favorites, her music it's like a fresh air but stills have a huge message. Mars is a little bit cloying, his songs are 70 % pop and that's the problem.
Well is just my opinion .

I thought BMars put on a solid performance. He's still relatively new so for this being his first major tour for his first album, I'd say he did a great job.

Monae rocked it, her rendition of "Want You Back" was on point. Overall it was a great concert. Didn't catch the first act as I was watching the second half of the Finals at City Walk, but good show on a nice evening

I caught the San Diego concert - and I have to really disagree with this reviewer. I watched the crowd grow rather disinterested in Janelle's performance - she was quite shrill at times, although her set and costumes were very cool, as was the choreography. But even when she sang the classic "Smile", I looked around and the crowd was pretty disengaged; inattentive. From my perspective, as talented as she is she somehow didn't reach out and grab the crowd. Contrast that with Mars; who came out smiling and full of positive vibe and the whole sold out, packed to the gills stadium was up on its feet singing along. He was vocally flawless and man, can the dude dance - exciting to watch and very entertaining. This reviewer criticizes"Just the Way You Are" - as too lightweight. Well, how about we list ALL the pop songs that are lightweight? Got a few weeks? It is a pure and sweet song, simplistic and lovely in its unpretentiousness. I LOVED Bruno Mars and would definitely recommend his concert to anyone who likes hearing his music on the radio.

Bruno Mars is one of the Best Artist of 2011 and this guy can really sing his heart out!!! He is multi-talented artist who can sing, write music, play musical instruments, record produce etc. He is a real musician who is the real deal and his talent is hard to find in todays music full of auto-tuning and rubbish. He can sing different genres of music from ballad, pop, rock, country, r&b etc. The reviewer on the other hand is a trying hard, second rate hater of real music. What do you know anyway, you're opinion is just rubbish!!!

I went to the show on the 14th and EVERYONE did an amazing job! I mostly went for Janelle and was kind of indifferent about Bruno at first but having seen him live, I now have a lot more respect for him as a musician. I know he's pop. I know what pop lyrics sound like. But what sets him apart from the Katy Perry's and Justin Biebers is that fact that he can do 2 VERY important things. 1.)Sing. No need for any fancy autotuning or any of that crap. The man has pipes and could make a reading of the phonebook sound good. 2.)Play an instrument. You remember those things right? They would make neat sounds before computers did everything.

And good god, Janelle Monae was brilliant in about a thousand different ways. I hope she comes to LA more often in the near future. What a joy she was to listen to and watch. And I don't know what's wrong with those punk kids who didn't like "Smile". I got a little misty-eyed at that one.


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