Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae at Roy Wilkins, 5/25/11

Categories: Last Night
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Photos by Tony Nelson
Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae
May 25, 2011
Roy Wilkins Auditorium, St. Paul


There's really nothing that compares to the exhilarating sound of an arena full of teenage girls shrieking. It's the sound of hearts breaking in unison, of ecstatic and un-jaded joy. And it was the sound that swelled up and sometimes drowned out Bruno Mars, whose every head tilt, hip swivel, and atta-boy smile was met with swarms of shrill squeals.

In the Top 40 pop realm, Mars is still considered an "up-and-comer," probably due to the fact that he's only filling the 3500-odd capacity Roy Wilkins instead of a 10,000-20,000 capacity arena like the Xcel or Target Center. But his set last night at the Roy was pure pop bliss, an amorphous blend of lite R&B, very lite hip hop and bubblegum soul delivered by the eerily perfect-looking, fresh-scrubbed Mars and his charming backing band.

It didn't take long to figure out why Mars is so popular with young women; he's safely sexy, all euphemisms and coy jokes, plus he sings almost exclusively about how badly he wants to be devoted to the universal you, each song a pledge of his undying love aimed squarely at the listener as an individual. "I wanna marry you / Just say I do," he sings in one song, following it up with songs about how he wants to lay in bed with you, how you can count on him, how he would catch a goddamn grenade for you, and how he loves you just the way you are. Oh, lucky you!

Mars also made an effort to connect with the audience as a whole, name-checking Minnesota several times and instructing the sea of gangly outstretched limbs when to take his picture ("Zoom in on this, Minnesota," he laughed as he thrust his hips toward the crowd) and when to put their cameraphones away and dance to the music.

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Photos by Tony Nelson
The budding pop phenom is currently on tour with Janelle Monae, a soul-pop-R&B mixologist with considerably more complex arrangements and a more nuanced approach. While I was initially disappointed that the show didn't involve any collaborations, it gave Monae room to do her own thing during her opening set, and she took full advantage of her time on the big stage. With her large backing band (an electronic string quartet, two drummers, and a row of guitarists and horn players) decked out in stark black and white attire, Monae entered grandiosely by cloaking herself as one of the back-up dancers and then emerging center-stage, mic in hand, to sing "Dance or Die."

Her first three songs bled into one another and built up an incredible momentum, but before anyone had a chance to settle into the band's groove each player was stripped away, leaving only the guitarist playing as even Monae herself marched maniacally behind the stage's backdrop. She re-emerged for an elegant cover of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," a song that was said to be one of Michael Jackson's favorite covers, and only two songs later paid homage to MJ again with the Jackson 5 song "I Want You Back," the song that got the most rise out of the antsy young audience.

Monae smartly saved her most well-known songs for the end, and the back-to-back performance of "Cold War" and "Tightrope" got the audience bouncing along. For her final song, "Come Alive," Monae lept off the stage and prowled around in the pit in front of the audience, eventually laying down on the ground as she sang (it seemed like that would have been the point in the set when she would have crowd-surfed, as she is wont to do, but I don't think the teenage arms could have carried even her tiny frame), then jumped back up onto the stage, hammered down a mic stand like an axe, and stormed out of sight without saying goodbye.

Of all the times I'd seen Monae perform, last night's set rivaled the energy of her SXSW performance at Stubb's back in 2009; it seems Monae's insatiable energy work best in front of gigantic audiences. I can only hope that this current tour with Mars, though it seems like an odd fit, will help propel her onto the massive platform that she needs to truly execute her bombastic and dizzying stage show.

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Photos by Tony Nelson
Personal bias: I always make a point to catch Monae while she's in town, I'm a huge fan.
The crowd: Teenage girls with high-pitched wails.
Random notebook dump: It had been a while since I'd been at a show where the fans sported homemade t-shirts; I was especially fond of a group of four girls who had puffy-painted matching "I <3 Bruno" shirts for themselves. Speaking of paint, it was also the first time I'd seen Monae pull out a canvas and paint during her set. She managed to paint a whole canvas red and then draw a big booty on it over the course of her song "Mushrooms & Roses."
For more photos: See our full slideshow by Tony Nelson.

Janelle Monae set list:
Dance or Die
Faster
Locked Inside
Smile (Charlie Chaplin cover)
Sincerely, Jane
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Mushrooms & Roses
Cold War
Tightrope
Come Alive

Bruno Mars set list:
The Other Side
Top of the World
Money (Barrett Strong cover)
Billionaire (Travie McCoy)
Our First Time
Runaway Baby
Marry You
The Lazy Song
Count on Me
Liquor Store Blues
Nothin on You (B.o.B.)
Grenade
Just the Way You Are

Encore
Talking to the Moon


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