After charging through most of an airtight “Runaway Baby” at a sold-out Smoothie King Center on Saturday night, Bruno Mars instructed his crack band, the Hooligans, to break it down. They broke it all the way down, to almost total silence, and left it there.
Mars, a showman schooled in the ways of the old-school masters, milked the moment. “Got to get the groove back!” he exclaimed, then chanted in rhythm, “We’ll find it, we’ll find it.”
Of course they found it. Bruno Mars and the Hooligans are an exceptionally well-oiled machine. They have their '80s-style R&B/funk thing down cold. With only a few brief detours, they sustained that groove throughout the hour and 40 minutes they spent onstage, keeping the packed-to-the-rafters crowd up and moving the whole time.
Mars’ star wattage has not dimmed since he sold out the Smoothie King Center in June 2014. Tickets for his return visit went on sale more than a year ago, around the time his “24K Magic” album was released. They disappeared immediately.
He likely could have filled two nights at the arena, such was the demand. Just before showtime on Saturday, the cheapest of the few tickets available on a resale website were still a pricey $275 a pair.
For that kind of money, fans witnessed a visual presentation that was unrelenting if unremarkable. The deep, shiny stage was framed by primary-colored light boxes. Flashing strobes and showers of sparks abounded. Platforms periodically ascended for seemingly no good reason. The video wall backdrop was underutilized, beyond airing occasional live footage of the band.
All the action that counted involved Mars, his musicians and their eagerness to please.
Mars’ decidedly casual but rigidly styled stage attire consisted of a baseball cap, shorts, Nike sneakers and a red Hooligans baseball jersey. The others wore similar ensembles.
Starting with “Finesse,” they banged out a total of 16 tidy songs, a hit parade interrupted only by an incongruous keyboard solo and the obligatory encore pause.
For nearly the entire set, the mobile Hooligans — guitar, bass, hype man and horns, but not the keyboardist and drummer — pulled double duty. They played their parts with precision while also joining Mars for nearly constant bouts of low-impact choreography. They stepped and swayed in unison in their matching jerseys like New Edition on casual Saturday.
They also sounded, on “Chunky” and elsewhere, like New Edition crossed with Boyz II Men. The splashy keyboards of the breezy “Treasure” were lifted right out of the '80s R&B playbook.
Mars handled the guitar solo in “Calling All My Lovelies” himself. He beamed while strumming an electric guitar in the irresistibly sunny “Marry You”; the band stamped it with a big finish.
He swapped roles in the ballad “When I Was Your Man.” Instead of the supremely confident player of “Uptown Funk,” he played the part of the guy who didn’t dote enough on his lady, but hopes that his successor does because she deserves it. Accompanied only by keyboards, he sought and found the song's high notes, pausing to wipe sweat from his brow. The heavily female audience responded as enthusiastically as he no doubt intended.
“Gorilla” was not nearly as smooth. But he worked the subsequent “Just the Way You Are” for all it was worth. By the end, he absolutely owned the room.
A two-song encore of “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Uptown Funk” was icing on a cake that the audience had already eaten up.