BRUNO MARS @ RED ROCKS | 8/6/13 Michael Jackson was alive and well at Red Rocks last night in the form of one Mr. Bruno Mars. Mars, decorated in an animal-print shirt and gold jewelry, was ever the showman for a nonstop ninety-minute set, jiving and moonwalking and pelvic-thrusting his way across the Red Rocks stage. (There were also moments of pure "This Is It" proportions, when the stage lights went down and Mars stood -- no, posed -- with arms extended and hat tipped in homage to this M.J. image.)
Mars, a ladies' man through and through, never let up, not even once. Taking cues from other R&B greats as well (namely, Prince), Mars was a full-fledged entertainer, performer, bandleader packaged into one helluva charming guy. For every song, he truly knew how to sell it... and make you feel as if you were the only person in the entirety of the sold-out amphitheater.
The Moonshine Jungle Tour, however, would be nothing without Mars's band, with a horn section, electric and bass guitars, keys, hype boy-slash-backing vocalist and drummer, who just so happens to be Mars's brother. Eric. These musicians, known collectively as The Hooligans, were pure fun -- the whole set felt like a long, catchy jam sesh among buddies, including some pretty direct come-ons to the single ladies in the audience.
For "Nothin' on You," Mars proclaimed, "If the ladies don't have a man tonight, don't trip. We got you." Then, bam! The trumpet, trombone and saxophone players are center stage gyrating in front of all the ladies. Imagine a 2013 version of Morris Day & the Time playing and dancing in perfect step to "The Bird." Yep.
That same synchronization was a consistent theme throughout the show. "Treasure," the funkiest song of the night, was all Hooligans and all steps. Mars even picked out a lucky lady during the second verse to direct his vocal performance. And, as you can imagine and your teenage daughter can fantasize, the choreography for the medley of "Show Me," "Pony" and "Ignition (Remix)" could have made even 2013 Prince blush.
Mars appreciates his predecessors, and at points gave subtle nods to all those who paved the way before him. Though any direct musical references to Michael Jackson were strikingly absent, Mars tipped his fedora to Prince during a performance of "Marry You" that included a riff straight from Prince's "Adore."
Likewise, "Grenade," amped up by brass, included a slight lift from the Cure's "Love Song." Mars' flat-out cover of "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong was an unexpected treat, with the brass crew on blast and Mars himself shredding a mean electric guitar. When Mars and his hype boy took on Mars' own "If I Knew," it felt as if they were three men shy of a modern Temptations lineup.
Mars shone most -- and received the most praise from fans -- with his own songs. If ever there was a question about who could rival Justin Timberlake as a successful solo male pop star in the 21st century, where Top 40, and particularly pop music, are dominated by female singers and Pitbull collaborations, the answer comes in the form of Mars. "When I Was Your Man," the only piano-and-vocals song besides Adele's "Someone Like You" to be as successful in the sales and radio play charts, was pure emotion and easily the only time in which Mars truly showed off his voice by straying from melody enough to feel fresh.
The evening's standout performances came in the encore, when Mars launched into a percussive onslaught by beginning "Locked Out Of Heaven" with a two- or three-minute-long drum solo. What followed was more Morris Day & the Time choreography and swaggerific grins, plus the undeniable highlight of the evening and encore follow-up, "Gorilla."
Truly, "Gorilla," a more "sensitive" song in his catalog for its subject material (sex so primal and animalistic it's like two gorillas got together), outshone all others because it was the whole package: It had flash (the backdrop screens were finally used for a pretty intense jungle visual, complete with gorillas) and bang (pyrotechnics) and depth (sample lyric: If the neighbors call the cops/Call the sheriff, call the SWAT -- we don't stop/We keep rocking while they're knocking on our door).
In a way, then, Mars and the Hooligans are a lot like "Gorilla." They too were flashy all night. Their music popped, and they appeared to have a deep commitment to the performance. It was refreshing to see a performer who has already made it and perform as if he had something yet to prove, as if he were about to be sent home, regularly proving to you why he was headlining two nights at Red Rocks.
Opener Ellie Goulding, of "Lights" and "Starry Eyed" fame, was a bit of a mismatch to Mars' strong stage presence and naturally-conducive musical arrangements for a live show. Goulding struggled to really get going, but once she did -- once people started dancing along to her music -- she really transformed. To a point, the tracks from her album Halcyon sounded a bit samey in a live setting, though they did boom with Goulding's drum "solos," if you could call them that. "Anything Could Happen" was great -- one would argue it was a better performance than her most radio-friendly track, "Lights," which sounded good but left you feeling unmoved.
Goulding's voice, wonderfully unique and strong, shone despite a setlist that didn't do her any favors in the Red Rocks setting. Had the sun gone down at this point, with lights on the city and lights on the stage, Goulding's picks would have clicked more emotionally. But they didn't this time around.
Personal Bias: I was a bigger Ellie Goulding fan before the Moonshine Jungle Tour stop at Red Rocks. Now? It's Bruno or bust.
Random Detail: The audience wasn't all thirteen-something girls. There were numerous Baby Boomers on hand, as well as bros out on their last hurrah before college classes start back up. An odd mixture of folks, but the energy was electric.
By the Way: Mars never missed a note in his vocal delivery. Somehow between all of the dancing and musicianship, the guy still blew me away vocally.