ST. PETERSBURG — Cee Lo Green is roaring, robust evidence that we as a pop-culture-gobbling populace have a sick sense of humor. Case in point: When the corpulent crooner, with his ample backside to the crowd, stripped off his hoodie at the Mahaffey Theater Wednesday, he flashed a significant chunk of his, well, ample backside. The near-capacity crowd should have recoiled in horror; instead, we cheered almighty. Hooray for brief horrific nudity!
In a wild, raggedy show that was as fun as it was frustrating, the 37-year-old multimedia eccentric — judge on The Voice, one half of alt-pop duo Gnarls Barkley, profane defender of broken hearts everywhere — showed why he's so lovable but also so straaange.
Opening with a choppy, sloppy cover of David Bowie's Let's Dance, the Atlanta native born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, backed by a six-piece band, proceeded to rage against the venue's light guy (he wanted something "more dynamic"), complain about the heat (he splashed tsunamic waves of sweat off his smooth-pated dome) and garble the lyrics to every other song. You better believe some folks, shelling out a hefty price, left surly.
But there were also moments of pure bliss. Green found his sweet, soulful voice for the night's second song, the great grooving Bright Lights Bigger City, from underloved album The Lady Killer, a throwback special merging modern swagger with a wicked bassline out of the School of MJ and slightly ripe keyboard blasts from the 1980s.
"I'm old school," the big man grinned. "I love that s---!"
For people expecting Cee Lo's infamous wardrobe flash or maybe a few Muppets, well, there wasn't much of that. And his backup band, so often made up of women, were mostly ragtag garage rockers who looked and sounded as if they were learning on the job. For pizzaz, well, Green did have a shiny cell phone strapped to his baggy sweatpants.
The night's highlight, at least for hip-hop heads, was when he nodded to his old days as a member of rap pioneers the Goodie Mob, resurrecting the crew for a few booming cuts, including the delicious Soul Food.
The rap breakdown was followed with his two biggest pop hits. After joking that he goes by many names — Mr. Lojangles, Lonan the Barbarian — he added that at least once a day people call him … Gnarls Barkley. And with that, he launched into that stutter-stepping ode to insanity, Crazy, which just happened to be the ubiquitous hit of 2006.
The crowd went suitably bonkers for that one, but the real dance-off was saved for the very next cut, which just happened to be the ubiquitous hit of 2010. Leading in with a preamble about the no-good dating life, and having his band tease with snippets of that boogie-down piano line, Green launched into the solo hit known on the radio as Forget You.
Except he didn't sing Forget You.
Nope, Green belted the original version, punctuating the R-rated doozy with a certain finger raised in the air. We sang along, because we're sick and twisted. And you know what? We sounded great, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandaly.tampabay).