Bruno Mars is a rare pop star who can make looking backward feel like the future.
At his sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday night, Mars drew from Frankie Valli and the Police, the Motown hit factory and shimmery '70s funk and disco. And yet he’s far from a retro act: His most recent album, “Unorthodox Jukebox,” went double-platinum and yielded year-defining singles like “When I Was Your Man” and “Locked Out of Heaven,” which more than compete with any modern-minded peer.
But unlike most colleagues at his career level, Mars planned a Bowl set (the first of a two-night stand) with a live-band swing and a rollicking, playful mood that recalled older ideas about what a pop show should consist of. He had precision and pure fun, musicianship and incontestable star power.
The night opened with the producer-turned-pop gadfly Pharrell Williams. Long known for his minimalist gumption, where he’d make chart-topping hip-hop tracks out of little more than tongue clicks and a kick drum, Williams owned the airwaves in 2013 with his vocal and production work on hits for Robin Thicke and Daft Punk. Unlike his '90s and '00s work, however, the material off his solo album “Girl” is dressed up in vintage soul and spit-shined falsetto.
He’s still working out what kind of a pop star he wants to be onstage. At this year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, he brought out a school bus worth of guest artists in a roving hit-parade through his catalog. Gwen Stefani popped by for the always-rousing “Hollaback Girl” on Saturday, but most of the set tried to establish him as a frontman deserving of a Hollywood Bowl-size stage. His songcraft is indisputable -- “Happy” needs no introduction here. But his crackling live band did a lot of the heavy lifting. Williams is a major pop figure but still finding his sea legs as a star.
Mars, however, is one of those people whose raw charisma would probably propel him to a C-suite office had he gone corporate, or to the presidency if he had gone into politics. Fortunately for pop fans, he’s built up a rock-solid catalog of radio singles that he delivers with total panache onstage. From the opening promise of “Moonshine,” in which Mars asked to “take us to the stars tonight,” he was unafraid of sincere, old-fashioned showmanship.
Mars runs one of the tightest live bands in pop, which is becoming more of a rarity with each passing year of EDM-influenced top 40. His combo’s funk guitars had an exacting percussiveness; their baselines shimmied with a kid's enthusiasm and a veteran player's care.
That added up onstage. “When I Was Your Man” has so little to it on record -- it’s just a plaintive white-shoe piano ballad. Yet Mars made it an unstoppable single on strength of his vocal performance, and that more than translated on the Bowl’s big stage. Even an obvious disco-kick like “Treasure,” which should feel cloying at this point in '70s-minded pop, was a master class in how to unite a crowd with an airtight performance.
It wasn’t all perfect -- “Just the Way You Are” is one of the hokiest singles going on radio -- but he still made a virtuoso’s show of it.
Mars encored with “Locked Out of Heaven,” a strange trick of a single that so thoroughly, transparently rips off the Police yet sounds so unlike anything else in top 40 that Mars makes it his own. It turned one of the oldest ideas in pop music -- a girl denying him affection -- into something almost exultant and firework-worthy. The crowd got exactly that on Saturday, and it felt like a culmination of modern moods and those old, trustworthy pop-star virtues.
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