Bruno Mars & Ellie Goulding at Toyota Center, 8/15/2013

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Bruno Mars, Ellie Goulding Toyota Center August 15, 2013

Robin Thicke may have the song of the summer, Timberlake may be the returning icon, Pitbull may be the ultimate party machine, but in the realm of male pop stardom Bruno Mars is The Talent. He's has serious pipes. He can rip up a guitar or a drum set. He writes such good songs even mediocre talent can hit the charts. Good-looking. Charming. Funny.

He can even dance. Nothing fancy, mind you -- he's not Michael Jackson, after all -- but good enough to make every woman in the Toyota Center break out in to cheers for every move he made.

Hell, everything he did elicited some sort of cheer, and with good reason: everything he did was wonderful. It was just one of those effortless, unpretentious shows that are good to catch now and then.

And make no mistake: he's putting on a show. It's not a concert pretending to be about empowerment to sell $50 shirts or loud songs dressed up as private confessionals -- Mars wants the people to celebrate, to dance, to have a fun time.

Mars will be the first one to admit that he's in love with the past. That's not to say that he's selling nostalgia, just that he's aware that many of the songs he writes are throwbacks to a different era. The difference between and him and other acts that are dusting off disco or mining classic R&B is that he's willing to commit to that mindset all the way through.

And so you get preshow music, outfits, and stage design that takes the crowd to an era before bass wobbles, back when the word trap was a thing you did to mice. And because he never stops to wink at the audience it works. Sometimes it's more powerful just do something rather than draw attention to it.

It does make the choice of tour opener somewhat strange. Ellie Goulding writes music that is very modern, so modern in fact that before the show I was concerned about her band's ability to pull off some of the complex production.

Of course, that retro vs. modern conflict means very little when you have a performer as strong as Goulding onstage. Pop takes a lot of forms, and judging by the crowd's reaction to her set they were perfectly fine with her as the opener.

Ellie Goulding doesn't have backup dancers, and that's awesome. Spectacle is great (I love it), but it's often used as a Band-Aid to cover up mediocre music instead of enhancing great songs. With just Goulding and her band onstage, the performance was still compelling, no mini-movies, costume changes, or squads of dancers needed.

While the biggest reaction to her set came from her closing run of hits- "Anything Can Happen", "I Need Your Love", and an amazing version of her megahit "Lights" that had some serious teeth- the real highlight was "My Blood," which managed to sound personal and anthemic in the big arena.

Goulding is for real, and here's hoping it's not too long before she's back in town.

Review continues on the next page.

After a wait that was perhaps about 15 minutes too long (but did include a nice, personalized video for Houston that made reference to the rodeo), Mars and his band the Hooligans hit the stage for an absolutely ridiculous set for a guy with only two albums to his name. Between his hits, collaborations, and songs that haven't become hits yet, every song he played felt like it was something important.

The Hooligans may very well be Mars' best weapon. Being talented is one thing, but The Hooligans bring energy to the stage that is rare in the world of modern pop backup bands. Mars is the star, but they enhance the performance and Mars treats them very much like equals rather than hired guns. They're the kind of backing band you hope a performer keeps for the next 15 years.

There was the slow jam of "Our First Time" (which included a bit of "Pony" and "Ignition" like all good slow jams should) and a rocking cover of "Money (That's What I Want)." He taught the men the secret of R&B during "If I Knew" (it's all about knowing how to say the word "Damn") and melted hearts during "Nothing On You."

The weird thing was is that Mars and company move through different genres so easily it actually makes his straight up pop work sound boring in comparison. A straight forward version of "Grenade" was kind of meh until the back half when they added some horns, a breakdown, and a section that sounded somewhat like Bush's "Glycerine."

Bruno Mars is an artist and an entertainer, one who can keep an entire stadium on their feet without having to fly through the air or have a second stage in the back of the arena. He's a reminder that good songs still mean something, and that a good sound is a good sound no matter what era it's in.

Argue about who the new king of pop is all you want, but the man in love with the past may have the brightest future of all.

Personal Bias: My opinion on an artist has never changed as much as it has for Bruno Mars. I HATED "Grenade" and "Just the Way You Are" and just thought he was garbage. Then Unorthodox Jukebox dropped and I fell head over heels for it. As for Ellie Goulding, I like her enough to know she wasn't going to play "Every Time You Go."

The Crowd: It's nice to go to a pop show with a crowd made up mostly of adults. Fewer signs, people drinking beer, curse words... it was a welcome change. A minor complaint: they did get restless waiting on Mars to take the stage and the Wave started. That was disappointing.

Overhead in the Crowd: "How do you know it's not over?" asked my +1 before the encore started. No joke.

Random Notebook Dump: Concerts have the unique ability to turn people into temporary superstars through sheer personality. You get that one person who just has to dance when "Jungle Love" comes on, and before you know it the entire arena is invested in her love of music. And when security shows up to get her out of the aisle and back to her seat, he becomes the most hated man in the room. And when she stands on her chair in defiance? Well, life is beautiful.


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