Bruno Mars kicked off his summer tour at Washington’s Verizon Center Saturday night with all the requisite retinal razzmatazz. Sprawling video screens. Blasts of smoke, fire and confetti. A disco ball the size of a Toyota Prius.
But the concert’s most dazzling visual element was discreetly physiological. Clad in uniform red blazers, cheetah-print shirts and blingy gold chains, Mars and his eight-man band worked the stage like a platoon of over-caffeinated Big Daddy Kanes. It didn’t take long for those crisp red blazers to start showing splotches of burgundy.
“I shoulda thought about this suit!” Mars said to a capacity crowd, as if he hadn’t. This was no wardrobe malfunction. He wanted everyone to see him sweat.
It was one of those rare, thrilling, upside-down pop concerts where instead of rigidly trying to recreate the high sheen of various hit singles, the singer takes complete control of the songbook, reshaping it at will. Which is to say, it was fantastic.
On the radio, where Mars has four No. 1 hits perpetually floating about, his voice can sound tangy and stiff. But on stage Saturday, it was sugar-dusted and elastic. “Treasure,” his latest single, felt like an old VHS dub of “Soul Train” brought back to life. On the Police-inspired “Locked Out of Heaven,” he sang like Sting with more bite. And during the hushed final refrain of his heart-squeezing “When I Was Your Man,” thousands of fans hushed, too, listening but still unable to stop themselves from crooning along.
Mars hopscotched through Motown, new wave, late-’70s funk, mid-’90s R&B, flaunting a pop fluency that’s earned him a vast and diverse horde of admirers. You could see it in Saturday night’s audience — there were baby boomers, babies of boomers, babies of babies of boomers, and in Section 100, an actual baby.
But Mars seemed to be primarily concerned with the women in the audience, fake-flirting with one in the front row: “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. “I’m the dude on the ticket.”
There was some genuine showing off, too. He garnished a few songs with guitar solos for the sake of playing guitar solos, as well as a drum solo that was somehow, miraculously, not horrific. And while he may be pushing himself toward that look-at-me-I-can-do-everything space where Prince resides, he still needs to learn how to assert his personality through all of his genre-jumping time travel.
Here’s one move he should steal from Revolution-era Prince immediately: Put the Hooligans, the name of the backing band, on that ticket stub, too.
The front line — guitarist Phredley Brown, bassist Jamareo Artis, supporting vocalist Phillip Lawrence and the horn section of Kameron Whalum, Dwayne Dugger and James King — not only brought tremendous life and electricity to their boss’s songs, they also seemed to be having the best 90-odd minutes of their lives. Toward the back, drummer Eric Hernandez and keyboardist John Fossit kept the set glued together.
And on lead vocals, a man poised to spend his summer winning over the planet, one sopping blazer at a time, Bruno Mars.