Bruno Mars (pictured at New York’s Barclays center last month) brought his tour to the United Center Saturday night. | GETTY IMAGES
BRUNO MARS SET LIST
‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ /‘Billionaire’/‘I Need a Dollar’
‘Show Me’/‘Candy Rain’
‘If I Knew’
‘Nothin’ On You’
‘When I Was Your Man’
‘Just the Way You Are’
ENCORE: ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ and ‘Gorilla’
Updated: July 14, 2013 4:07PM
Party people of all ages descended upon the United Center Saturday evening, anticipating that Bruno Mars’ sweat-soaked extravaganza would transform the arena into Chicago’s biggest dance club. They weren’t wrong. Despite having only two full-length albums under his own name, the 27-year-old Hawaiian native held a deep arsenal of hits that kept the energy high and the people in motion.
The Hooligans, Mars’ cracking pop-soul band, was a throwback in the best way. With tight interplay and the ability to stop on a dime, the nine-piece group recalled the days when a smooth rhythm and blues combo was expected to play, sing and dance without missing a beat. James Brown would have been proud, even when Mars borrowed the Godfather of Soul’s lightning-quick Mashed Potato footwork during the red-hot riffing of “Runaway Baby.”
The Hooligans were equally proficient at rock, hip-hop, soul and reggae. Even silky doo-wop found its way into the mix, alongside the Motown beat of “If I Knew.” Mars himself uncorked a wicked Chuck Berry guitar solo during a cover of “Money (That’s What I Want).”
Song subjects ranged from the chaste romance of “Just the Way You Are” to the unrestrained libido of “Gorilla.” “Locked Out of Heaven” contained both, led by sharp guitar chords and a strong beat. At first, the song’s religious imagery suggested purity. “You could make a sinner change his ways,” sang Mars fervently, before dispensing with metaphors and making his carnal desires plain.
“Maybe, just maybe, you’ll put your camera phones down and dance with us,” said Mars with a grin, before commencing “Treasure.” The joyful song was reminiscent of Jamiroquai and “Off the Wall”-era Michael Jackson. Mars led his Hooligans in mesmerizing, synchronized steps.
“This was the hardest song for me to write,” said Mars, introducing “When I Was Your Man.” “To this day, it’s the hardest song for me to sing.” Lamenting a lost relationship, Mars’ tortured wail told all the things he’d do differently if only it weren’t too little, too late. Women cheered in thunderous approval.
Fueled by handclaps and soulful moans, the dramatic “Natalie” found Mars plotting cold revenge against a gold-digging woman who did him wrong. Mars poured his heart into “Grenade,” listing different ways he would make the ultimate sacrifice for love. “But you won’t do the same,” he sang, marking the wicked sting of the chorus.
Happier experiences with the ladies surfaced elsewhere. The roof-raising “Just the Way You Are” celebrated the entrancing qualities of Mars’ lady love. “If perfect’s what you’re looking for, then just stay the same,” he sang sweetly. The tender “Nothin’ On You” rang with every voice in the United Center, as faces sparkled under the twinkling lights of an oversized disco ball.
Mars’ stylistic diversity was a tremendous asset. Borrowing the name of his current album, Mars’ “unorthodox jukebox” provided a satisfying, one-act variety show. Although cannons fired and flames roared during the big finale, most of the fireworks came directly from the players and songs themselves.
Jeff Elbel is a local free-lance writer.