Several songs into his Saturday night show at a sold-out PNC Arena, Bruno Mars stopped playing long enough to give a little speech about what the crowd was in for. Mars and his band were there, he told the audience, to get everyone “movin’, dancin’, shakin’, sweatin’.”
Mars’ broad smile and rakish leer also let the crowd in on the fact that, like any good rock star, he also wanted to get witchou. But if there was a revelation to the show, it’s that Mars seems to be a rocker at heart.
As good of an R&B love man as Mars is, the best moments of his 100-minute set came when he strapped on a guitar and let it wail, starting with a letter-perfect take on the Barrett Strong classic “Money (That’s What I Want)” the way John Lennon used to do it. And just before the encore, Mars conjured up some guitar flourishes at the end of “Grenade” that suggested the guitar fireworks of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”
It’s obvious and undeniable that Mars is derivative. But he wears it proudly and he’s just so danged good at anything and everything that he gets away with it. Where Justin Timberlake often comes across as an earnest wannabe clamoring for admission to The Pantheon, Mars just sort of glides on in and convinces you he belongs there.
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His opening act, Aloe Blacc, wasn’t quite as convincing. Blacc’s hourlong set was an entertaining game of “Name That Tune,” with originals that occasionally seemed on the verge of segueing into better-known songs they sounded like (including actual quotes from “God Bless the Child,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and Elton John’s “Your Song”). But Blacc did have one moment of genius to show off, his vocal from Swedish deejay Avicii’s hit “Wake Me Up,” a song that was made to go over in large, crowded buildings. It did.
As for Mars, his set was a sensory overload from the very start. The lights went down, a drumline beat started up and the curtain dropped to reveal fog, lasers, choreography and the star himself giving an air of cool nonchalance. Rocking a white fedora, Mars looked as if he’d just wandered in from the golf course to whip this crowd into shape.
For all his casual cool, Mars played a supertight set, with his band displaying the best transition game this side of the San Antonio Spurs. One medley paired a couple of reggae tunes with the R&B love-man seduction of “Our First Time.” That segued into the riff from Santo & Johnny’s dreamy 1959 guitar instrumental “Sleepwalk,” which begat Mars’ own rocked-up “Marry You.” It was turn-on-a-dime, and about as entertaining as musicology gets.
As a vocalist, Mars’ money shot is still “When I was Your Man,” a torch song he melted down as always. (It will be interesting to see if he can still put this one across convincingly a decade and several thousand more renditions down the line.) The encore demonstrated that a) on top of everything else, Mars is also a pretty mean drummer capable of playing a very credible arena-rock drum solo; and b) the combination of lasers and confetti is cool, albeit in a seizure-inducing kind of way.
A pretty good night’s work.