Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae Reliant Arena May 18, 2011
See Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae and their fans, just the way they are, in our slideshow.
Somewhere, Michael Jackson is smiling again. At last.
The King of Pop may be gone, but he was very much there in spirit Wednesday at Reliant Arena. Presenting two radically different takes on post-Michael R&B, Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae were united not only by their obvious reverence for the Gloved One but by their mastery of the fundamental pop principle that "musician" and "entertainer" should be inseparable.
Call it the Jacksonian effect. Or just Michael's Law.
Starting off Wednesday's "Hooligans In Wondaland" show, Monae was (to borrow a phrase from her theatrical background) a show-stopper. She can sing like Beyonce, dance like Michael - to prove it, she moonwalked - and, judging by her wardrobe and visual effects, is a big fan of Jameses Bond and Brown.
Emerging in a Harry Potter-ish hooded robe, Monae seamlessly alternated between quick-tongued rapping and gospel testifying on big, brassy openers "Dance or Die" and the aptly named "Faster." Just as quickly, she reversed the flow back into Charlie Chaplin's wistful ballad "Smile"; Monae may not be in Kansas anymore, but there's still a lot of Judy Garland's Dorothy in her.
Though much lighter on the sci-fi imagery than her Verizon show last year - Wednesday was retro, equal parts The Cotton Club and slick '60s black-and-white modernism - she put on some Plastic-Man future shades for the John Barry/Shirley Bassey pizzicato strut of "Sincerely Jane" and then, wouldn't you know it, stepped up to the plate and knocked the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" out of the park. (R.I.P. Harmon Killebrew.)
She wasn't done by a damn sight, either. We thought she was after a tightly wound "Tightrope," when she told her band to "put some voodoo on it." No problem there. But then came "Come Alive," which came with screaming Maggot Brain guitar, a bass line swinging like a 2X4, Monae scatting and wailing as her hair finally broke free of its tightly harnessed pompadour, and climaxing with the entire band prone onstage.
It was either an orgy or a riot, and left Aftermath speechless. "Shit, man," we wrote. "I'd hate to be Bruno Mars."
Luckily, he doesn't. Mars isn't nearly as adventurous (or flat-out funky) as Monae, but he makes up for it with a sterling falsetto, easygoing manner and roguish charm. Half an hour later, he put the crowd into a frenzy with just a cock of his head and sly half-smile.
That he turned out to be an equally sharp musician was just a bonus. Once the youngest Elvis impersonator on the island of Oahu, Mars is all showman, albeit one who subscribes to the less-is-more philosophy of letting the audience come to you. One fan took that all too literally during "The Lazy Song," forcing a laughing Mars and his band to start over.
A warm tropical breeze blew through much of Mars' set: The Beach Boys blast of "Marry You," mellow ukulele-aided "Count On Me" and reggae sunsplashes of "Our First Time," "The Lazy Song" and "Billionaire," which was preceded by a snappy take on Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)." Michael came along via "Wanna Be Startin' Something" in "Top Of the World," and Mars even let go of a blues lick or two (via the Cure's "Just Like Heaven") in "Grenade."
Naturally, the song everyone came to hear - including the couple about Aftermath's age who danced through Mars' whole set while their three kids were sacked out in the seats next to them - was his smash hit "Just the Way You Are." The melody might be different, perhaps even cuddlier than this one, but it's nothing that hasn't been sung a thousand times before. True.
But Wednesday it was assembled so perfectly, delivered so charismatically and received so warmly that finding fault with its chin-up/pat-on-the-back message would be like throwing rocks at the Easter Bunny. Aftermath had a shit day Wednesday, but not a care in the world after the song, so it worked for us.
Like the rest of the evening, it was both unmistakably retro and completely contemporary. More importantly, it reminded this jaded critic who turned off Top 40 a long time ago that in the right hands (and throats), pop music has not lost its capacity to thrill.
Personal Bias: We were knocked out by Monae the first time we saw her. By contrast, we had no idea what a "Smeezington" even was until very recently, but totally get it now.
The Crowd: Girls, girls, girls. Ladies, ladies, ladies. Lots of fedoras.
Overheard In the Crowd: "That's a good wig"; "She looks like she's nine years old"; "He looks like that hippie off The Muppets" - if Monae hadn't been so entertaining, we could have written this entire review about the people sitting behind us.
Random Notebook Dump: We wish Reliant Arena had more shows. It's nothing fancy, but the sightlines are good and the sound is clear. Minus all the screaming.
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
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BRUNO MARS SET LIST
The Other Side Top Of the World Money/Billionaire Our First Time Runaway Baby Doo Wop interlude The Lazy Song Count On Me Liquor Store Blues Nothin' On You Grenade Just the Way You Are