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Bruno Mars is in the middle of a milestone moment. Not many Grammy-nominated, Super Bowl halftime headliners would spend their time off from a sold-out North American arena tour to christen a new venue in Las Vegas and perform for a relatively small crowd of 3,000 people — Mars’ first of eight shows at the space throughout 2014. Yet the rare opportunity turned into a rich, refreshing spectacle, as Mars stretched his improv chops for an intimate audience that became acquainted with his vocal precision, sense of humor and longtime friends.
Mars had a bit of ground to recover from the get-go: while the concert was listed to begin at 9 p.m., Mars wasn’t booked to hit the stage until just after 11 p.m. — a schedule unknown to ticket holders already irritated from waiting in snaking entry lines. After being appeased with a long set by DJ Supra, fans gladly greeted an energetic Mars riffing on an electric guitar, dressed casually in a black blazer and graphic tee and accompanied by his Hooligans bandmates outfitted in suits and suspenders. Once the youngest Elvis Presley impersonator, when he was 4 years old, Mars habitually performs with kicks, thrusts and other mannerisms that had female attendees screaming when the King did the same, and effortlessly proves that his retro R&B/pop aesthetic isn’t just for show (which, arguably, artists like Robin Thicke and Justin Timberlake have recently adopted), but is an authentic, core musical inspiration.
And between his hits, he delivered the laughs: “I have so much hairspray in this shit right now, you have no idea!” he joked. Later, he said to widespread protest, “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a man so bad, I just wanted to rip my shirt off onstage. But I’m too short and I’m too fat!”
As he performed his top tracks like “Just the Way You Are,” “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Treasure,” much of the night’s set list was borrowed from his Moonshine Jungle Tour, like the reggae jam “Show Me” flushed in red, yellow and green graphics and the feel-good “Marry You” track with dancing lights. Yet for those unfamiliar with his non-radio play, nostalgic covers were served with a twist: his usual mashup of Barrett Strong‘s “Money (That’s What I Want)” and his “Billionaire” breakout with Travis McCoy also featured a chorus of Aloe Blacc‘s “I Need a Dollar,” and a thrust-filled medley of his “Our First Time” track and Ginuwine‘s “Pony” included R. Kelly‘s “Ignition” hit. He also blended The Outfield’s “Your Love” and Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Poison” with Montell Jordan‘s “This Is How We Do It,” Bobby Brown‘s “Every Little Step” and Janet Jackson‘s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” among others.
Many moments spotlighted Mars’ stellar vocal precision, including an elongated ending to “Billionaire” that had him belting for minutes through a single chorus. His stripped-down “When I Was Your Man” piano ballad — or what he called “my serious song for the night” — wowed the audience, singing along loudly. Mars’ harmonizing on “If I Knew” was supported by a noteworthy Philip Lawrence, Hooligans’ bandleader and one of Mars’ production partners who co-wrote songs for Cee Lo Green and B.o.B., before Mars picked up the mic himself.
The evening’s upbeat tracks included Motown-inspired choreography by his eight-piece band, who together exuded a deep history and visible camaraderie that was as entertaining as Mars himself. Often improvising new dance moves and laughing with each other — Mars asked the audience, “Can we just jam out like we used to? Like we did during out wedding band days?” — their synergy proved the age-old concert rule that when performers actually let loose and have fun onstage, the audience is having fun watching them as well.
Putting the tight-knit group in an intimate venue made room for crowd-pleasing, off-the-cuff covers. Mars, performing in front of a brand-new triangular digital screen that projected visuals like dancing female silhouettes and moving clouds, shouted to the visual technicians to show him what other stock effects were available. After monarch butterflies, fireworks and other graphic options were displayed a moving waterfall appeared, and Mars spontaneously sang a few bars of the TLC hit. The audience followed his lead, to Mars’ surprise, and the band improvised the accompaniment while guitarist Phredley Brown shocked his bandmates by reciting Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes‘ entire “Waterfalls” rap. “That’s the best $200,000 I’ve ever spent!” Mars shouted in reference to the new display. He enjoyed the improvised cover so much that he asked the audience for a suggestion; after turning down requests for Kelly Clarkson and Sugar Hill Gang, he greenlighted a shout for Michael Jackson, reaching deep into the band’s repertoire for a rock-inspired cover of “Billie Jean” that led into “Dirty Diana.”
Mars returns to the newly christened stage for New Year’s Eve, Feb. 15-16, May 23-24 and Aug. 22-23. While his upcoming shows at The Chelsea probably won’t replicate the exact musical spontaneity of opening night, Mars is clearly an artist open to experimenting with his set list, equipped with a band that keeps up with his onstage ideas. The intimate venue broadens the likelihood for such improvisation and humorous moments, all while still keeping the rich set list to nearly 90 minutes.
Money Make Her Smile
Money (That’s What I Want) / Billionaire / I Need a Dollar
Our First Time / Pony / Ignition
If I Knew / It Will Rain
Your Love / Poison / This Is How We Do It / Every Little Step / Let’s Talk About Sex / Candy Rain / That’s the Way Love Goes
When I Was Your Man
Billie Jean / Dirty Diana
Just the Way You Are
Locked Out of Heaven
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