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Bruno Mars sure knows how to rock it old-school.
We know his songs mix in elements of retro cool — a little Michael Jackson here, a little Sting there — and then, amazingly, he spins it all into something completely his own.
In concert, too, Mars joyously hearkens back to an earlier era. At his show Thursday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, Mars' voice climbed and quivered with classic Motown-esque finesse, reaching for all those romantic — and occasionally lustful — emotions he writes about in his songs. "When I Was Your Man" was all silky vocals and yearning passion; Smokey Robinson would have been jealous.
Mars broke out dance moves — some that had slight echoes of MJ — along with the hardest-working-man-in-show-biz ethos of James Brown. He showed off his instrumental ability, tackling electric and acoustic guitars and busting out a drum solo to kick off the encore. And you can tell Mars has been onstage since he was a wee child because he's so comfortable there.
If Mars was the smooth operator, he also served as the leader of a cool pack. His band fired up the arena. They had a whole Earth Wind & Fire vibe going on, with all the musicians (except the drummer and keyboard player) moving around in gleeful choreography that never felt too slick. Good for Mars that he's willing to share the spotlight; his back-up guys weren't consigned to the shadows but joined the party at the front of the stage with the star. Their energy and sense of sheer enjoyment was palpable.
The staging was sedate compared to a lot of overproduced concerts these days. For the most part, the pyrotechnics were produced by Mars' golden voice and by his and his band's performance prowess. By the encore (which consisted of a boisterous "Locked Out of Heaven" and "Gorilla"), shimmering confetti did rain down and flashpots blasted up, but it proved a lively punctuation rather than a central theme.
Mars is old school in another way; he didn't want fans to spend the whole show hiding behind their iPhones and told them as much. He asked concert-goers to put their cells down and dance. He even — in a kindly way — called out a woman down front who was texting during the performance.
Since the band was such an integral part of the show, let's identify them by name: guitarist Phredley Brown, bassist Jamareo Artis, vocalist Phillip Lawrence, trombonist Kameron Whalum, saxophonist Dwayne Dugger, trumpeter James King, drummer Eric Hernandez (Mars' brother, who provided a particularly pounding beat for "Grenade" that upped the power of the tune) and keyboardist John Fossit. These guys make for one of the most fun bands ever.