Nothing in this world should be as easy as Bruno Mars makes it look. Not singing, not dancing, and certainly not playfully seducing more than 17,500 starry-eyed Tampa fans with one of pop music’s best bands at your back.
But that’s Mars for you, barely 32 and perhaps unparalleled as pop’s do-it-all man of the millennium.
Mars’ concert Thursday at Amalie Arena was about the 95th stop on his seemingly infinite 24K Magic World tour, and you better believe all that polish gleamed. On blazingly bright display at the center of his crisp, clean stage, Mars gave a wily, winking but never less than incandescent performance, earning those 24 karats in spades.
It’s all a welcome antidote to pop’s serious-boy revolution, led by the likes of Justin Bieber and Sam Smith and the Weeknd – talents, all, but also guys who couldn’t lighten up a darkened dancehall if their haircuts depended on it. Not Mars. Mars is a Vegas residency in human form, a joyous prophet of New Jack Swing who understands that pop music shouldn’t just make you move, it should also make you smile.
“C’mon, Tampa, I’m trying to dance with y’all tonight!” he urged the crowd during 24K Magic, one of eight Top 10 mega-hits he and his band the Hooligans dropped on the night.
Mars wears his influences on his adult-small sleeves, and you could see them as he flicked his fancy feet like James Brown on Perm. Same with Runaway Baby, which decrescendoed to a little-bit-softer-now heartbeat with Mars dancing all alone in the mood lighting. In the Time-like Uptown Funk, he’s got a closer for life, a horn-blased heatseeker that remains one of the best party-pop singles this century. And while he’s not yet the equal of Prince (who is?), bathed in purple light and fog while wailing out a killer guitar solo on Calling All My Lovelies, he wasn’t the world’s worst approximation, either.
All that said, no sane viewer would deny major love to his hot-stepping Hooligans, who stomped and swiveled around their leader like a halo of B-boys, always eager to hoot out a hot Keep up! or Hot Damn!. Picture Earth, Wind and Fire bringing boy-band choreography to Soul Train, and you’ll have an idea of their gleeful performance of Treasure or the deliriously show-stopping Marry You. And they did all this while staying musically true to Mars’ vision of time-capsule future-funk, from John Fossitt’s squirrelly synthesizers on Straight Up & Down and Chunky to Jamareo Artis’s wild, wubbly bass on Perm and Treasure.
So tight was Mars’ vision and his band’s execution that several of these songs really did feel like relics from another, less self-aware era. How earnest could Mars possibly be, “drippin’ in finesse” (Finesse) and pleading for “sex by the fire at night” (That’s What I Like) with ridiculous come-ons to “them girls with the big ol’ hoops” (Chunky)? Heck, on Calling All My Lovelies, he actually whipped out a prop telephone to deliver a spoken-word interlude, a move that would reek of drippy, melty cheddar coming from, say, All-4-One, much less one of the biggest pop stars of 2017.
But! But! With Mars, all that slathery queso actually kind of works! It’s total pop escapism, something he understands better than most, if not all of his peers. Thursday’s show was as styled and choreographed as a Broadway musical, one about an ebullient upstart and his street-singing chums, right down to the coordinated baseball jersey costumes – and this is not an insult, but rather a testament to Mars’s talent for tiptoeing that fine line between open-hearted showmanship and winking, 21st century self-parody. Mars knows all this, and his show lets his audience know that he knows all this. They're in on the grins and giggles, in on the effortless chemistry between the man and his all-star band. And that makes them laugh and scream all the louder.
Sounds hard, right? For most singers, it probably is. But not Bruno Mars. That dude makes it all look so easy.
-- Jay Cridlin