Want to Be Like Mike
With her Michael Jackson tribute and her sci-fi funk, Janelle Monae out-rockseven Bruno Mars
Every time I see movies centered around the old Motown or rock 'n' roll traveling caravans of the 1950s and 1960s — Walk The Line, That Thing You Do!, The Buddy Holly Story — it's hard not to feel as if I missed out on the birth of modern American pop music by not being able to experience it live.
Wednesday at the Reliant Arena hot, young performers Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae allowed Houston to experience something almost as cathartic: The rebirth of American pop music.
Musical pioneers like Holly, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Diana Ross & The Supremes and The Jackson Five, are either gone or have musically evolved into something quite different over the last half century and it would be impossible to recapture that moment in time. What Mars and Monae created instead on their co-billed Hooligans in Wondaland tour was a direct 21st-century link to those early halcyon days of rock 'n' roll and doo-wop.
For one night, It was as if the decades of over-produced, over-scandalized, self-delusional and often mediocre pop delivered in cone bras and meat dresses had been erased from the pop culture timeline.
What was left were two artists who can sing, dance, play instruments and connect with an audience in a way that made the girls at the front of the stage scream and the thousands in attendance dance the night away.
By tenure and greater success, Mars was technically the headliner, but it was the clever, high-concept and artistic pop funk by Monae that made the biggest impression. Her 55-minute set was a physical manifestation of both the androids vs. humans sci-fi of her acclaimed year-old album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), performed with a 15-piece band of brass and percussion.
Monae, dressed in her quickly-becoming-iconic slim-cut pseudo men's suit, opened the night with quick-slinging fusion-fueled rap on "Dance or Die," before upping the tempo for the aptly named "Faster." With the whole band running in place with Monae as they performed, the song played like a hyper version of Louis Armstrong's famed "Jeepers Creepers" after a shot of 5-hour ENERGY.
Not content to simply be music-to-zumba, Monae slowed it down for a spare turn through Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" proving that she is every bit the soulful, soaring songbird from the line of Diana Ross, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys. The last time I heard "Smile" performed live was by Jermaine Jackson at his brother Michael's memorial service in 2009. This was a mirthful reintroduction to the song and was quickly followed by a rebirth for Michael Jackson himself when Monae nailed a super-funky version of The Jackson 5's "ABC."
Monae brought it home with her two drum line-heavy hit singles from the past year, "Cold War" and "Tightrope." The latter brought the jazzy video to life and gave her license to let her feet and petite frame fly. If there was any doubt that the hair poof on the top of her head (a female version of a pompadour) and the quick-footed shuffling wasn't a tribute to a young James Brown, then the cape a bandmate threw to Monae to end "Tightrope" should have really drilled the point home.
Bruno Mars allowed the bar to be set high by Monae, but he has some skills of his own as well as a knowledge of R&B history that served him well as the night's closer.
Sporting a fedora and playing a mint green guitar, Mars brought his brand of good-natured hooliganism to nearly every track on hit debut album, Doo-Wop & Hooligans. (Oddly, the only song he omitted from the 14-song set list was his first single, "The Other," which he originally performed with Cee Lo Green and B.o.B.) Before launching into hits inspired by everything from his laid-back Hawaiian upbringing ("The Lazy Song") and the emo-soul of mid-1990s Michael Jackson ("Grenade," "Liquor Store Blues,") he led off with a full-band strum through a song that influenced him — Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" — and a song he influenced — Travie McCoy's "Billionaire."
Blessed with a talent, charm and more beautiful, pearly white teeth than Donny & Marie put together, one gets the feeling Mars will be influencing a lot of other artists in the near future.