“You’re amazing,” Bruno Mars crooned, “just the way you are.”
Mars’ set-closing ballad Friday at the jam-packed First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park had row upon row of fans swaying and singing along with him. The hit song was cast as a tribute to individuality, but for Mars there are about 17 individuals dancing around in his brain every second he’s on stage, and he channeled them all in a 90-minute concert.
He’s a bunch of different artists from the Little Richard pompadour beneath his fedora to the James Brown and Michael Jackson dance moves that glide from the tips of his loafers. There’s a bit of Jackie Wilson and Ronald Isley in his three-octave tenor, some Chuck Berry flash in his guitar playing, and – look! – there’s Sting lurking in the shadows and a doo-wop balladeer serenading us from under a lamppost. From the ‘50s to the ‘80s, Mars has a riff on soul, pop, early rock ‘n’ roll and reggae.
The singer born Peter Hernandez 28 years ago in Honolulu, Hawaii, made all that style mashing look effortless. He’s been on stage for all but four years of his life, a diminutive Elvis imitator turned into a whirling-dervish karaoke machine with his own eight-piece band. His style is less about originality than a charming, disarming enthusiasm for heroes past. He’s translated it into two multimillion-selling albums and enough cross-generational appeal to turn him into a Super Bowl halftime headliner this year, performing to more than 100 million viewers.
The audience was slightly smaller Friday (30,000-plus) but Mars held the fans in thrall with a performance that radiated energy, uplift, and – with the exception of a couple of obscenities – a family-friendly congeniality. It played like a fast-paced revue with Mars stringing together songs into medleys that ranged from the Motown chestnut “Money (That’s What I Want)” to R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” Though Mars was the star, he shared the front of the stage with his horn section and his songwriting partner and backing vocalist, Philip Lawrence. The theatrics were relatively modest by stadium-pop standards, with the emphasis on musical interaction and choreographed ensemble dancing punctuated by occasional bursts of pyro and lasers.
Mars deftly handled it all – confident enough to share the spotlight with his musicians, versatile enough to let it rip on guitar, hammer out a drum solo or let a wordless cry stretch out over 10 or 12 syllables. His dancing was smooth and almost impossibly light; he bounced with such limber ease through his steps that had he levitated it wouldn’t have shocked anyone.
It all added up to impressive entertainment, though the songs are no more than skin deep explorations of love, lust and the occasional grab for revenge (“Natalie”) or cash (“Billionaire”). Mars’ PG-rated brand of pop is notable mostly for its range: the disco pleasure of “Treasure,” the gospel fire of “Natalie,” the Caribbean rhythms of “Bam Bam,” the pleading doo-wop accents of “Marry You,” the Police-channeling “Locked Out of Heaven,” and the Sam Cooke-inspired “If I Knew.” The longing for the past extended to the between-songs banter, with Mars imagining an era less reliant on hand-held devices: “Ladies, put your phones down … (expletive) Instagram!”
But at a time when the pop arena is increasingly dominated by electronic dance-music DJs and canned “live” performances, Mars’ emphasis on old-school musicianship and classic songwriting almost makes the distant past seem new again.
Bruno Mars set list Friday in Tinley Park:
4. Money (That's What I Want)/Billionaire
5. Bam Bam/Show Me/Our First Time/Pony/Ignition
6. Marry You
7. If I Knew/ Nothin' On You
8. Runaway Baby
9. When I Was Your Man
11. Just the Way You Are
12. Drum Solo/Locked Out of Heaven