Bruno Mars’ seven-piece band needed a breather Saturday at Circuit of the Americas. Mars didn’t, though, and so the Grammy-collecting pop idol offered a trio of keyboard-backed hits from his almost 10 years as a headliner. You forgot how much he dominates radio during the 16-song-plus show.
“Let’s see if y’all remember this one,” Mars told the Formula 1 faithful. “I’m going to play you the four chords that changed my life.”
He launched into 2009’s “Nothin’ On You,” a hit with a rapper, B.o.B, who hasn’t been famous in some time. Many people wearing the logos of European automakers helped Mars sing it.
“It was 35 years ago today I wrote that song,” Mars deadpanned afterward. The 33-year-old born Peter Gene Hernandez lacks the effortless charisma of his heroes (James Brown, Michael Jackson, Prince), but his song-and-dance routines are winking, deliriously fun homages to the American songbook.
“This was the hardest song for me to write,” he humble-bragged before “When I Was Your Man,” a well-received breakup ballad. There aren’t too many behind-the-scenes career producers and songwriters who finesse their way into stardom, and this auteur’s sold 130 million albums worldwide.
“It’s awfully quiet, is Austin in the house?” he asked early on.
Wearing a red baseball jersey, black-and-white striped pants, black Nikes, and a gold chain, Mars was loose and lively. But he seemed to acknowledge that playing to racing fans on a racing track (the show did not occur at COTA’s more traditional amphitheater) made him an unorthodox jukebox — and lubricating the dance floor would take an appeal to reason.
“I know it’s a little cold but that’s alright, we ‘bout to warm y’all up,” Mars said. “Everybody put your phones down and let’s have some fun.”
Shortly after 8 p.m., the show began with uptempo, rowdy singles “Finesse” and “24K Magic.” Clusters of folks in general admission seating areas, up front and back at the lawn, delighted in the rarely intimate setting. (The ongoing, international and 214-date “24K Magic” tour has mostly stuck to cavernous arenas. After Austin’s outdoor gig, Mars has four shows in Los Angeles’ Staples Center.)
But Mars wanted more group participation.
“Austin is this how sexy we’re going to get tonight? Just let me know now,” he bantered prior to “That’s What I Like.”
He found enough torque for the car guys in the box seats, and that’s a testament to his elastic band, the Hooligans. Mars’ B-Boy crew of backup dancers and singers frequently became his horn section. The show could flex from Boyz II Men-esque male vocal serenading to Earth, Wind & Fire-bright brass, with drummer (and Mars’ little brother) Eric Hernandez as the onstage constant.
“Different view tonight,” Hernandez posted to Instagram early Saturday. He knew it’d be a weird show but was into it, later stealing the show with a long solo.
All night Mars and the Hooligans riffed on the New Jack Swing R&B of the early ‘90s (Bobby Brown, Bell Biv DeVoe, TLC) with learned vigor and smooth moves. During the evening-closing “Uptown Funk,” the song that any good wedding DJ knows to play immediately following the parents dance to get people moving, a stagehand tossed Mars a gold cane.
He talked into a shiny, Zack Morris-era phone and became an ironic, post-Barry White loverman during “Calling All My Lovelies.” Everything with a self-aware nod to the Billboard hits he’s built a career on: “Hey baby I’m in Austin right now ... breathing extra heavy for no reason.”
Mars this year sparked an online debate over whether it was OK for him to take so many cues from African-American music. Was the Hawaiian-born singer (his mom is Filipino, his dad is half-Puerto Rican and half-Ashkenazi Jewish) exploiting black legacies by dabbling in soul, funk, doo-wop, disco and rap?
“Hey Austin I think I wanna marry you,” Mars sang during “Marry You” as fans roared.
Here, no one had existential questions about identity. Bruno Mars writes distinctly American music for everyone, and cheerful people responded to literal fireworks with clanked cans for 85 minutes. Vroom, vroom.
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