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The Hooligans in Wondaland Tour
Bruno Mars/Janelle Monáe w/Plan B
Wednesday, May 4
Better than: Waiting for “Grenade” to come on the radio.
The co-headlining tour starring sweet-voiced android Janelle Monáe and uxorious pop crooner Bruno Mars kicked off at Roseland last night, and why these two haven’t been touring together for the past few months is a mystery; they’re an evenly matched pair as far as inspiration sources (James Brown, pop art), sonics, and performing chops go, although the way they employ those source points comes off quite differently. Monae is the besuited professional, powering her way through her set, covering a canvas in red and blue paint (yet seemingly leaving her crisp white shirt spotless), leading her sprawling band through time changes and dance moves; Mars is the always-grinning pal-slash-crush, full of profuse thanks for everyone in attendance, proclaiming his devotion over and over through song.
Monáe came first, and she was announced by a tuxedoed man who introduced a short pop-art film that spotlighted the members of her band (which included a full string section and horns). Three hooded figures then appeared onstage, and as “Dance Or Die” went on, she revealed herself as one of the behooded people onstage, somehow converting it into a cape. From there she pumped out many of her brief catalog’s highlights; the bubbly “Wondaland,” was given a ton of extra oomph by her more-than-capable band (which was led by a guitar player whose soloing could best be characterized as “sick”), while the stretched-out funk jam “Mushrooms & Roses” bloomed into a psychedelic masterpiece during which Monáe busted out her easel and painted a naked female form (you could tell by the butt crack) outlined in red and blue, and adorned with splattered paint and the words “Love” and “Freedom.” From there it was on to the two singles from The ArchAndroid, “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” with the latter given an especially spirited treatment that ended in Monáe paying tribute to James Brown via funky footwork and leading the band through count-offs. This led into a two-song encore (!) that ended with a call-and-response bit conducted by some of her backup singers, which itself turned into the band choreographing its collective demise and rejuvenation through the power of audience singalong; there was then a dancing frenzy onstage, during which Monáe decided to take her leave; and the band finished things off for her, jumping in unison as the last beat crashed down. Cut to “Purple Haze” (the Jimi version), the house lights going up, and the feeling that all that had happened really quickly.
Half an hour later and it was time for Bruno Mars, and oh, how the women in attendance loved him. But who can blame them–and yes, “them” includes me–for doing so? A sampling of his lyrics: “When I see your face/ There’s not a thing that I would change/ ‘Cause you’re amazing/ Just the way you are”; “If you’re tossing and you’re turning and you just can’t fall asleep/ I’ll sing a song beside you/ And if you ever forget how much you mean to me/ Every day I will remind you”; “Yeah, I know I know/ When I compliment her she won’t believe me/ And it’s so it’s so/ Sad to think that she don’t see what I see.” And so on. Dude is like the blend of the perfect boyfriend and a “cheer up” teddy bear in a package that’s wrapped in an adorable grin and accompanied by a musical greeting card that doesn’t even sound annoying after 10 listens of its 20-second snippet. (Just don’t think about how he helped pen the not-very-lady-liking “Fuck You,” because, hey, it’s not like he sang it.) As a pop star who leans heavily into R&B’s territory, he’s something of an anomaly on the radio, but he plays the role so exceptionally well that there’s no question he should have a spot in the pop firmament. And his band was impossibly tight, melding New Jack Swing and (again) James Brown quickstepping and a few choruses that seriously sounded like they were inspired by the soundtrack to Top Gun (or some other popcorn flick older than he is) into irresistibly dancey confections.
The yin/yang relationship between Mars and Monáe–male/female, robotic/fleshy, dudely/androgyne–is in large part what makes this tour work, although their shared influences and utter professionalism (even while wide-eyedly thanking the people in attendance, Mars came off like a stage vet) made the night completely enjoyable, and this tour seem like even more of a no-brainer pairing. May it come back soon.
Critical bias: So into Bruno Mars that I even like his most OneRepublicy song, “Talking To The Moon.”
Overheard: “This is, like, Boner City.”
Random notebook dump: For a bunch of the night I stood next to this kid who was completely geeking out over everything both performers did, and it made my heart feel good, in large part because 19 years ago that kid was me. (Well, I was at a Faith No More/Helmet show. But still.)