Bruno Mars' talents are much in demand these days. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old co-wrote and produced two of the biggest hits of the spring-Travie McCoy's "Billionaire" and B.o.B's "Nothing On You"-the latter of which spent two weeks on top of Billboard's Hot 100. His production team, The Smeezingtons, are also behind K'Naan's "Waving Flag," which became the official anthem of the 2010 World Cup, and Matisyahu's "One Day," NBC's theme song for the recent Winter Olympics.
All that production work has been good for Mars and his partners Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine-it certainly helps pay the rent. But ever since his days as a 4-year-old performing with his family's band the Love Notes in his native Hawaii, Mars has always wanted to be a frontman, to sing his own songs. As his debut EP, It's Better If You Don't Understand, proves, he's certainly got the voice (that's his honeyed tenor singing the hook on "Billionaire"), he's got the looks (think Karate Kid Ralph Macchio crossed with La Bamba Lou Diamond Phillips), and we know he's got the songwriting chops.
All of which made Mars' headlining show last night at Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom, his first in New York City, something of a coming out party. He did not disappoint.
Mars and his four-piece band (featuring Lawrence on backup vocals) dressed in matching bright-blue tuxes, white shirts, and skinny black ties that made them look like the house act for some '60s sock hop. And the audience, mostly women and their boyfriends, were as giddy as teenagers (some of them of course were). When they weren't singing along they were screaming, usually at one of Mars' goofy smiles.
But there was good reason to be excited. Despite a couple pitch problems here and there, Mars proved to be nearly as good a performer as he is a songwriter.
He introduced two new songs, both from his upcoming debut LP Doo-Wops & Hooligans, due out Oct. 5. "Marry You," an homage to the fleeting charms of a Vegas wedding, paired Mars' effortless melodicism with his winning sense of humor. "Who cares if we're trashed / I've got a fist full of cash," he sang over jaunty, staccato keyboard runs (no word yet on the identity of the lucky lady).
While "Grenades"-the evening's only certifiable ballad-cast Mars as the spurned lover, threatening self-mutilation to prove his love. "I'd catch a grenade for ya / Put my hand on a blade for ya," Bruno vowed, quietly strumming his Strat. The ladies went wild.
Bruno Mars may be the guy you'd bring home to mother, but he's also the guy who'd teach her how to dance. Mars and Lawrence pulled off a few synchronized dance moves that looked like James Brown one moment and old-school vocal groups like the Temptations the next. And without Mr. McCoy to rap over the verses in "Billionaire," Mars and the gang turned the track into a reggae vamp that had him grinding and swaying.
Mars closed out the evening with his latest single, "Just the Way You Are." It may be a touch saccharine, but it's also a perfectly engineered pop song-and the Bowery's sold-out crowd sung along to every word. "When I see your face, there's not a thing that I would change / 'Cause you're amazing just the way you are."
Setlist for Bruno Mars:
1. "The Other Side"
2. "On Top"
3. "Marry You"
4. "Money (That's What I Want)" (Barrett Strong cover)
6. "Somewhere in Brooklyn"
8. "All About You"
9. "Count on Me"
10."Nothing On You"
11. "Just the Way You Are"
12. "Dirty Diana"