Bruno Mars at Xcel Energy Center, 6/21/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo provided; credit: Florent Déchard

Bruno Mars
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bruno Mars is a real pro. Each aspect of his Saturday night performance of the Xcel -- his dancing, his singing, his guitar work, and, of course, his songwriting -- displayed a broad, self-assured knowledge of pop history while slyly positioning the star himself as its inevitable culmination. But charmer that Mars is, he too often treats his casual mastery as a sufficient end in itself. His ace mimicry glistens with the polish of craft rather than blazing with the spark of artistry, and his admirable versatility can verge on the facile.

The show began with the fall of a scrim adorned with palm trees. In a line across the front of the stage stretched Mars's band, the Hooligans, including a three-man horn section that doubled as a backup dance crew. The star himself, a boyish Filipino-Latino looker, stood toward the center of this line, stylishly dressed-down in trilby and flowered shirt, first among equals, just one of the boys. The first two songs were questionable choices from Mars's latest album, Unorthodox Jukebox (a far less heretical collection than its title pretends): "Moonshine" is little more than pleasant mid-tempo dance-pop and "Natalie" is a screed against a "gold-digging bitch" that jars coming from one of pop's supposed nice guys.

Throughout, Mars rooted through the past like a junk drawer, integrating music styles from different eras with a carefree disregard for historical accuracy. It was good fun when it worked, as on the light funk song "Treasure," which imagines Michael Jackson and Prince peacefully coexisting just around the time Reagan was first elected. It was an undifferentiated retro mess when it didn't, as when Mars broke into a Chuck Berry solo while covering the old Motown hit "Money (That's What I Want)." He followed "Money" with his own "Billionaire," a far inferior celebration of pop acquisitiveness, during which I was distracted by two sisters, maybe about 7 and 10, trying to decide whether they could sing "fucking" with their mom one seat over.

Phillip Lawrence, one of Mars's two partners in the songwriting and production crew the Smeezingtons, flanked the singer for much of the show, serving as backup singer, auxiliary dancer, and a rather corny hype man. During "Billionaire" he reworked the chant from Ronnie Hudson's "West Coast Poplock" (which Dr. Dre adapted for the mid-'90s 2pac hit "California Love") to ingratiate himself to us locals, singing "St. Paul/ Knows how to party" and "In the city/ City of St. Paul." (We seemed just moments away from a round of "When I say 'Saint'/ You say 'Paul.'") Not long after Lawrence was channeling Sebastian the Crab yah-mon-ing a fake patois intro to the tourist-reggae number "Show Me."

But Mars did need Lawrence's help. The star rarely connected with the audience in a way that might frame a Bruno Mars show as something more than a series of well-performed Bruno Mars songs. He's the Swiss pocket knife of pop, or maybe its combo platter: the ideal choice when you're not in the mood to choose. And while Mars's virtuosity never feels merely studied or coldly synthetic, neither does it feel lived in. Mars remains something of a cipher, a repository of styles and skills he glides through as efficiently as bullet points on a resume.

And so, during "Our First Time," Mars digressed into snatches of Ginuwine's "Pony" and R. Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)." "Marry You," which playfully treats that sacred bond as "something dumb to do," a knot easily untied when the hangover ebbs, alternates between two '60s girl-group moods -- moony ballad and footloose shimmy -- and Mars prefaced it with a snippet of Santo & Johnny's late '50s Hawaiian-style instrumental hit "Sleepwalk." And during "Runaway Baby," Mars mock-accused the crowd of being too quiet and said his band could be even quieter, leading into the "A little bit softer now" bit from the Isleys' "Shout." Somehow, he was both trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

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