Bruno Mars is a once-in-a-generation artist. A master of his craft and consummate performer, he’s one of the few whose comparisons to icons like Michael Jackson, James Brown and Prince aren’t hyperbolic or altogether absurd. And if there were any doubters among the crowd piled into Capital One Arena on Friday night — the first of a two-night run in the District — his feel-good music on top of his supreme gift for entertaining had to have won them over.
At a time when highly conceptual stages seem to be in vogue, Mars decided to stick with lights, lasers and pyro. So much pyro. He and his eight-man band, the Hooligans, executed variety-show spunk with surgical precision. Right away, he deployed eight of the nine tracks from his latest album, which like the tour is titled “24K Magic,” and magic they were. Much of that music is inspired by ’80s and ’90s R&B, so naturally they channeled New Edition, all slides and high-steps. In a display of old-school showmanship with new-jack attitude, no one (save for the drummer) stood still, and the crowd ate it up. Mars and his crew shine because they commit fully — they’re not “too cool” to have a little fun, which allows them to sell what, in other hands, would just be corny.
The “24K Magic” portion of the show concluded with Mars’s latest single, “Versace on the Floor.” A sexy slow jam of the highest order, he temporarily pared down his production to let his voice do the heavy lifting, backed only by shimmering piano chords. But the night’s best vocal performance came a short time later with the grief-stricken ballad “When I Was Your Man” from his second album, “Unorthodox Jukebox.” Just him and keys for the entirety of the song — no dancing, no backup, no stage set — his most vulnerable moment was also his most arresting.
When there’s nothing competing for attention and it’s just artist and audience, that’s what separates the good from the great, and Mars is spectacular. His ability to appeal to everyone, whether in heartbreak or unabashed joy, cannot be overstated. Even at his most risqué (“Straight Up & Down,” “Versace on the Floor”), he still managed a family-friendly and inoffensive demeanor. Maybe it’s the charmingly boyish looks — his fitted baseball hat to match his red-and-white Hooligans baseball jersey, the minimal facial hair, the fact he’s 5-foot-5. Or maybe there’s no way to lose with nostalgia on his side. Whatever it is, it’s indiscriminately magnetic.
It’s one thing for teeny-
boppers and overzealous college students to buy an artist’s merchandise and then wear it to their show. It’s another when adults who look to be nearing retirement age are also doing it, like proud parents supporting their child. Even when, in jest, he scolded the audience to “maybe put [their] camera phones down” and dance, there was a portion who didn’t need the reminder (presumably because they had spent most of their lives without the option). Mars is intergenerational that way. He invokes bygone pop stars and their respective eras while also feeling exceptionally modern. For every throwback move there’s a milly rock to offset it.
Of his peers, Mars may be the most complete performer. He teased his virtuosic guitar skills throughout the night, only breaking them out for “Calling All My Lovelies” and debut album “Doo-Wops & Hooligans” singles “Grenade” and “Marry You.” His vocals were impeccable; charisma seeped out in his singing and his stage banter. Then, of course, there was the dancing. Rarely giving an extensive choreographed break, he captivated with an isolation or hip thrust on the beat here or a synchronized series of bounces or kicks there. Altogether, Mars makes singing and dancing look like child’s play — less a job and more like that guy in the club who seems to have an off-the-cuff routine for every song and whose pure enjoyment encourages everyone else to gawk and enjoy themselves, too.
For a man with three multiplatinum albums and 11 multiplatinum singles, 90 minutes was never going to be enough. The audience was still amped up as he rounded out his encore with megahit “Uptown Funk,” electrifying them further with every call-and-response repetition of “uptown funk you up!” Eventually, firemen armed with extinguishers arrived onstage to put him out — after all, when you’re this hot, what other way is there to go?