Though cutely dubbed the “Hooligans in Wondaland” tour, the joint outing by whiz kids Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe could just as accurately be called the “Old Soul(s) Revue.”
For all of the grousing that so many of today’s young stars are more pre-occupied with image and flimsy, disposable radio fare than creating anything substantial, here are two examples (three, really, if you count opener Plan B) that defy those complaints.
For more than three hours last night, fans packing a sold out Fox Theatre received a lesson in authenticity.
It started with British singer/rapper Plan B (aka Ben Drew), who fronted a five-piece group of classy-looking, skinny-suit-clad musicians intent on overpowering his voice.
A huge star in his homeland, B is hardly another random Top 40 singer. With a voice coated with the gristle of a vintage soul man, he sauntered through the soulful pop of “The Recluse,” growled through the hip-hop dotted “Coming Up Easy” and seamlessly segued into the ‘60s-styled finger snapper, “She Said.”
Though his voice was strangely absent during chunks of a medley of “My Girl” and “Stand By Me” (a sound issue, it seemed), B recovered for a “dubstep remix” of the Ben E. King classic with his awesome sound-making buddy, Faith SFX.
This guy, sort of a Bobby McFerrin of rap, added vibrations and a slew of percussion sounds – all from his mouth and throat – to the song before it devolved into a mountain of noise, with Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” as the victim.
No, it wasn’t always slick or pretty, and at times, B seemed to regard the audience with indifference, but it would be hard to argue that his rawness wasn’t real.
Plan B’s second album, “The Defamation of Strickland Banks,” was released in the U.S. last month.
Atlanta’s Monáe – technically a co-headliner with Mars – arrived in her usual dramatic fashion, surprising the audience as one in a trio of black-hooded figures on stage.
During her hour-long set, Monáe, 25, was ceaselessly riveting, tapping everything from the New Orleans chug of “Faster” to the blistering “Locked Inside” with a light touch.
You can see why Prince digs her (she’s opening one of his L.A. Forum shows this weekend): She’s a tiny whir of James Brown’s feet, Grace Jones’ hair and his own soul.
But as entertaining as her massive band, all wearing the Monáe uniform of black and white, was, at times, the view onstage was a bit overwhelming with a four-piece orchestra, a four-piece band, two brass players and two backup singers, many of them jitterbugging around the stage while playing.
Add to that Monáe’s rubbery steps (including a flawless Moonwalk), and it’s no wonder that a highlight was during the show’s quietest moment, when she displayed her chanteuse chops on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Accompanied only by a jazzy guitar, Monáe sang the ballad in a bold, clear voice, re-affirming that after more than half a century, it’s still one of the most beautifully simple songs in existence.
But soon it was back to showcasing her slightly wacky persona for the tight funk of “Wondaland” as a video (in black and white, of course) of her and the band frolicking in a playground rolled behind her.
Since many of Monáe’s songs include much wailing, it was refreshing to hear her spin through the word-heavy “Tightrope” before the band launched into an extended jam during “Come Alive,” which Monáe did when she bounded into the audience to scamper around.
Though she never addressed the crowd verbally, her perpetual smiles and blown kisses indicated the warmth directed at her (adopted) hometown fans.
Despite Monáe’s Atlanta connections, there was little doubt who the superstar of the show was when a black curtain rose to reveal Mars in his signature fedora.
Who knew that Mars, 25, would evoke such squealing from not only teens, but their mothers and grandmothers, too?
It was appropriate that his second song of the set, an unreleased pop-rocker filled with hooks, is called “Top of the World,” since that’s exactly where Mars is lately.
And who wouldn’t want to be Bruno these days?
Judging from his playful demeanor – draping his arm around wingman Phillip Lawrence, engaging in some humorously inoffensive pelvis thrusts and flashing a billion-dollar smile – Mars is pretty content with life.
And he should be. The guy is a spicy young talent who sounds as natural tossing out Chuck Berry licks and covering the Berry Gordy-era “Money (That’s What I Want”) as he is playing pop’s loverboy.
His honeyed voice swooned during “Our First Time,” a bedroom ballad spiked with a reggae rhythm and he led his seven-piece band through the horn-infused staccato pop-funk of “Runaway Baby” with a naturalness that belied his age.
Mars’ childhood immersion in music was even more obvious live, when fans could watch his innate sense of rhythm steer “Nothin’ On You” and hear him recall classic influences.
A lovely doo-wop segment segued into “Marry You,” a song spring-loaded with caffeinated energy, and the multi-instrumentalist even pulled out a ukulele for “Count on Me,” a sweet, mellifluous ode to friendship.
Mars has tapped into something very real with songs such as “Nothin’” and his now-signature smash, “Just the Way You Are.” He knows that most women are suckers for a few compliments and tender thoughts and he packs his songs with such affirmations, careful to avoid any overcooked begging.
Why does it work so well? Because Mars, like Monáe, is a genuine talent. And even the most smitten fan can smell a fraud.