Live review: Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae @ the 1stBank Center

Just when it seemed as though wunderkind Bruno Mars -– he of the coy, boyish charm and the golden songwriting pen and the voice you could just pour over ice cream –- could do no wrong, well, then he does.

He picks Janelle Monáe as his partner on the “Hooligans in Wundaland Tour,” leaving many of us out there in the undersold 1stBank Center crowd Sunday night wondering, “What just happened?”

Mars has Cee Lo Green on speed dial following their brilliant collaboration on “F**k You,” and he even manages to make B.o.B. look like a genius (“Nothin’ on You” was a Mars vocal highlight Sunday night, even without the Atlanta rapper’s silly but infectious rhymes all over it).


But Monáe and her amateur performance-art hour was so tedious and painful, I don’t know what even Mars could have done to fix it. Were those cape-clad dancers dressed as “Star Wars” Ewoks or extras from the “Scream” franchise? The “Alice in Wonderland” backup singers made no sense with the rest of the cast’s “Matrix” saddle shoes and Monáe’s Grace Jones sunglasses. And the song choices could not have been more jangling. We went from Nat King Cole’s “Smile” to “I Want You Back” from the Jackson 5 to Monáe’s own funkadelic “Tightrope.”

Give the Grammy award-winning singer props for the groovin’ 11-piece band, and during “I Want You Back,” there were moments it sounded as though Janet and Michael were in the house. But those dance moves have got to go –- everyone lying down on the stage as legitimate choreography went out in, um, 1978.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few folks in the crowd who remember that year, although they were far outnumbered by preteens in matching sequin-studded fedoras and T-shirts that had been hand-painted to read things like, “Marry Me, Bruno.” The latter looked utterly befuddled by Monáe. They were there to study the fully hatched teen girls, to learn how to wave their arms in the air like they just don’t care and affect the look of expert concertgoer.

Where Monáe’s part of the show might have been better suited to an off-the-Strip Vegas lounge act, Mars would have fit in much better anywhere smaller and more intimate. He has such a darling give-and-take with his audience, and while there is the concern that some of his more aggressive fans might accidentally eat him like a little nugget of caramel corn, his sound just isn’t big enough to fill a place that, well, is also such a good spot for Roller Derby.

He purposely started out with a tune that doesn’t appear on “Doo-Wops & Hooligans,” last year’s full-length debut, a song he’s maintained is the first one he ever wrote, “Top of the World.” It’s a foot-tapping if not raucous dance track and meant to get everyone moving, but at the end Mars seemed to be frustrated that it hadn’t worked. The failure was due to several things: the unfamiliar song, the thin acoustics, the fact that everyone was still a bit shell-shocked by Monáe. He moved on to the tried-and-true call-and-response format –- he called it going “old school” –- to amp up the crowd before moving on to a roughed-up version of the hit song he wrote with Travie McCoy, “Billionaire.”

The rest of the show alternated between being dedicated to making the girls (and their moms) scream by thrusting out his pelvis –- which, by the way, Elvis did better decades ago by not feeling the need to announce that he was going to do it ahead of time –- and then fake-innocently asking, “What the hell are you screaming about?” He ran through most of the CD, including the insipid “The Lazy Song,” which, thank heavens, is better live because he and co-conspirator and Smeezingtons bandmate Philip Lawrence injected it with some humor and character.

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Kyle Wagner is a regular contributor to Reverb and travel editor at The Denver Post.

Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.