He may have titled his debut album Doo-Wops & Hooligans to acknowledge both his female and male fans as well as his pop and street inspirations, but the opening night of Bruno Mars's first headlining tour revealed that the most apt word for the year's breakout R&B singer-songwriter is wholesome.
From the gentleness of his tunes to the dimples in his cheeks, Mars is most certainly that, but not in a contrived, Disney-fied way that suggests he'll end up in rehab the moment his hits stop coming: Either this Honolulu-born 25-year-old of Puerto Rican and Filipino descent is either refreshingly well-adjusted or a remarkably gifted bluffer. When he smiles, as he did frequently Tuesday night to the delight of the sold-out (and predominantly female) crowd at Slim's, a San Francisco nightclub more apt to book indie rock bands than Top 40 chart-toppers, he seems genuinely, unaffectedly happy.
That's not to say that he hasn't done his homework. Mars's music is an unapologetically mainstream blend of pop, classic soul, rock, reggae, and hip-hop. Anyone who can have a hand in producing and/or writing Flo Rida's "Right Round," B.o.B's "Nothin' on You," Travie McCoy's "Billionaire,"Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," and his own "Just the Way You Are" in less than two years clearly understands the mechanics of contemporary hit creation. What makes the best of those records work is that no matter how efficiently they meet radio's requirements they still seem natural -- as if they were made out of a love of pop craftsmanship and not simply to get paid.
More remarkable is the fact that Mars is already utterly at home on a stage and can cope with the ridiculous demands of teen idolatry. The moment he walked on stage to sing "The Other Side," his Cee Lo/B.o.B collaboration and his album's most serious song, he was met a daunting sea of cell phone cameras held aloft. When he finished a song, the crowd screamed rather than applauded. He sang nearly every track on Doo-Wops & Hooligans and almost all of them had the fans singing along. He didn't ask them to do this.
When he divided the house in two competing chanting halves for his set's unreleased second song "Top of the World," the results were actually less emphatic. It's clear that his audience appreciates his unconventional but undeniable looks: The guy can rock a pork pie hat with more savoir-faire than Justin Timberlake. But there was also the sense that his fans appreciate his sincerity as well as his style.
His attempts to confirm his rock credentials during his hour-long set came across more contrived. His version of "Billionaire" was preceded by a verse and chorus from "Money," the early Motown hit popularized by the Beatles, and he and his five-member band performed a mash-up of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Billie Jean," and "Seven Nation Army" that every dorm room DJlong ago perfected.
Much more convincing was his sweet ode to friendship, "Count on Me." Here he traded his guitar for a ukulele -- an apparent nod to his Hawaiian roots -- and the crowd turned up the volume of its sing-along. After set-climaxing renditions of "Nothin' on You" and "Just the Way You Are," the singer belatedly returned alone for an encore, but didn't know what to do. After some coaxing, he accompanied himself on acoustic guitar for what he described as the first song he ever wrote, "All About You," another unreleased but potential hit. After this, a diminutive fan came on stage to present him with a lei. For this, Mars gave her his ukulele. The guy is nothing if not generous.
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