Bruno Mars doesn't need a ton of special effects to tizzy the modern masses. At a sold-out Tampa Bay Times Forum on Wednesday, the dude instead relied on sensible shoes, a rambunctious horn section and a sparkly stage wide enough to hold all of his time-travel instruments.
Mars' rocket-ship success on pop radio is boosted by a seeming originality; the smooth kid stands out in the 21st century, a unique grooving voice among the standard pop pap and grinding fare.
But if you sent him back to the '70s and '80s, the Honolulu native would fit in fine. He's a man of influences — Prince, MJ, Sly Stone — and he's managed to blend them with his own modern flash.
The 27-year-old Grammy winner born Peter Gene Hernandez also understands that showmanship is key — and maybe missing in many respects today — and although his 90-minute set for an all-ages, all-faces crowd of 14,172 was a bit slight, it was packed with an organic, holy-moly sexy energy. In case you didn't know, Mars sings about girls — all of them.
Backed by an eight-piece band, including that loose boogie-down brass ensemble, Mars and his mates uncorked opening song Moonshine like a modern-day Kool & the Gang. The sound was tight, banging, one of the best sound systems I've heard in the Forum.
Before the post-disco glam of Treasure — perhaps the randiest cut in his young but impressive songbook — he said, "We came to get you all movin', all shakin', all dancin'. Maybe even get you all sweatin'. So put your camera phones down!"
In other words: Unplug and listen. That's old-school, baby, punctuated by a giant disco ball that handled most of the cool lighting tricks.
Speaking of which, his smoky, rough-hewn delivery hit glorious high notes on a cover of Barrett Strong's 1959 slammer Money (That's What I Want), which featured Mars wailing out a solo on electric guitar. That segued into the '60s-style bonfire shuffle of Billionaire, a 2010 hit for Travie McCoy that Mars co-wrote and crooned on. (He'd later do an acoustic version of B.O.B.'s Nothin' on You, which he also helped make famous.)
Mars is comfortable in all his encyclopedic travels: reggae, mellow jazz, sepia-toned R&B. In one stretch, he ventured into all three, bedecked in a spotlight that made sure everyone in the house could see his thrusts and spin and snaps and absolute stone-cold stage presence. If I Knew was a secular gospel weeper with lush Motown harmonizing. It also included a hilarious tutorial in "R&B 101" and the pivotal importance of a well-placed "damn!"
Mars is a killer front man, but he made sure he and his band were locked-in together the whole show. They moved in unison, fiery formation, including on a blowout of Runaway Baby.
And together they charged into an all-hits finale: the Elton John-esque ballad When I Was Your Man, which showed off his soul-kissed croon; the thumping guitar-reinforced Grenade; and ballad Just the Way You Are, which expanded like nothing less than a big ol' Journey anthem in a live setting.
Mars opened an encore version of the Police-borrowing Locked Out of Heaven hammering on a drum kit. Soon enough, golden confetti rained down. For the closing Gorilla, jets of pyro shot through the night. Okay, so he busted out some big special effects after all. But you know what? Dude earned them.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.