Bruno Mars must have left his ego in the recording studio.
Mars — the biggest broad-appeal male pop star since Justin Timberlake — is a gifted songwriter (“Nothing on You,” “Right Round,” “Wavin’ the Flag”), producer (“Forget You,” “Billionaire”) and recording artist (“Grenade,” “Just the Way You Are,” “When I Was Your Man”). But on Sunday night at sold-out Xcel Energy Center, it was often a question of “Where’s Bruno?”
Accompanied by seven musicians and one backup singer, Mars favored ensemble choreography (even though he can be a dazzling dancer), arty lighting that seldom put him in the spotlight and an unspectacular outfit (cougar-patterned shirt, black slacks and straw hat) that made him blend in with his casually dressed bandmates (in unmatching outfits).
This 90-minute show came across like a modern-day version of the Temptations-meet-Earth Wind & Fire. There were simply not enough star turns to make Mars seem like the superstar he deserves to be.
That’s too bad because Mars’ abundant skills were in evidence. His sweet croon seduced on “Nothing on You,” the hit he wrote for B.o.B., and his own “When I Was Your Man,” delivered with just voice and piano.
And nothing was more impressive vocally than “If I Knew,” which sounded like Otis Redding doing the Righteous Brothers with Mars masterfully providing both the soaring, silky tenor parts and the gritty, deep soul-gospel parts.
He showed off his drum chops on the introduction to the encore “Locked Out of Heaven” and his guitar prowess on a Santana-meets-Hendrix passage on “Grenade.” And he gave a taste — well, more of a tease — of his James Brown dance moves on “Runaway Baby.”
If all these references to stars of the past sound like too-much name-dropping, it’s because Mars, 27, has gone to school on old-school music. Having started as an Elvis impersonator at age 4 in his family’s show band in Hawaii, young Peter Hernandez studied tapes of Elvis, Brown, Prince and others in concert. Clearly influenced by Motown and especially Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, Mars knows how to keep lyrics uncomplicated, melodies hummable and hooks catchy.
Throw in his taste for pop, soul, reggae, rock, hip-hop and even doo-wop, and he has a formula for mass appeal radio hits (four different Twin Cities radio stations hung banners in the Xcel doorways; rarely do more than two stations get involved with a concert).
That explains why the Puerto Rican/Filipino singer drew one of the most diverse audiences at a big-time Twin Cities concert — Latinos, Asians, blacks and whites; young girls and their parents as well as teenagers, young adults and even baby boomers enjoying a date night.
The 16,000 fans certainly heard his voice and music loud and clear Sunday, but how often could they find the diminutive, multi-culti superstar on the too-busy stage?
Opening was British pop star Ellie Goulding, 26, whose dramatic dance-pop went over surprisingly well.
Here is the set list from Sunday:
Moonshine / Natalie/ Treasure/ Money >Billionaire/ Show Me/ Our First Time > Pony (Ginuwine)/ Marry You/ If I Knew/ Runaway Baby/ Nothin on You/ When I Was YOur Man/ Grenade/ Just the Way You Are ENCORE Locked Out of Heaven/ Gorilla