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Oh yeah, yeah

Bruno Mars shows why he's a contender for King of Pop

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For a long time, Justin Timberlake seemed to be the heir apparent to the late Michael Jackson's crown as King of Pop -- but there's a serious argument to be made for Bruno Mars.

Because while JT may have the moves, Bruno's got the pipes.

The 28-year-old Hawaiian singer/songwriter born Peter Gene Hernandez (yeah, doesn't quite carry the same star power) made good use of that show-stopping voice -- all three octaves of it -- when he dropped by the MTS Centre Saturday night as part of his five-leg, 154-show Moonshine Jungle tour in support of his Grammy-winning 2012 sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox.

Over the course of a tight, bright set that contained all of his radio-dominating hits, Mars and his inimitable backing band proved you don't need arena bombast to put on a great arena show. There was some pyro, sure -- but the focus was put squarely on musicianship.

Taking the stage at 9:20 p.m., Mars -- dressed island cool in his loafers and trademark fedora -- started strong right out of the gate with Moonshine, Natalie and the brassy disco-funk number Treasure, which was the night's first big choreographed number. His backing band can shake it, to be sure; but, unlike so many glossy, high-production arena shows, the choreography felt light and loose as opposed to over-rehearsed and overwrought. Mars and his gang left room for spontaneity, and it always looked like they were having the most fun in the room.

Still, while there was certainly stunning showmanship on display, what were no doubt nuanced performances by seasoned players were often lost to a thunderous rumble of bass -- especially up in the 300-level seats. Mercifully, Mars' indelible pipes were never dwarfed by the sternum-vibrating sound. His performances were powerful and acrobatic, athletic yet effortless.

The MJ comparisons are inevitable, but Mars also has a Prince-level preoccupation with sex -- see: a down 'n' dirty medley that featured Ginuwine's Pony and, ugh, R. Kelly's Ignition. What's perhaps most striking about watching Mars perform is his agility; there's no genre he can't wrap those pipes around, from Barrett Strong's well-covered R&B staple Money (That's What I Want) to the pure pop of Marry You. (Sadly, those grating church bells from the recording made it into the live show.)

Mars is best, though, when he's soulful. His performance of When I Was Your Man -- "I've written a lot of songs, and this is the hardest one to write and the hardest one to sing," he said -- was absolutely breathtaking. When he closed the main set with the anthemic Just The Way You Are at press time, he was rewarded with an enthusiastic singalong from an adoring crowd.

(Mars closed the show with the Police-indebted Locked Out of Heaven and the raunchy romp Gorilla.)

In a summer that has seen -- and will see -- no shortage of spectacle from the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Katy Perry, Bruno Mars' show was a nice reminder of how much entertainment can be derived from straight-up singing and dancing.

Norwegian Afrobeat/R&B duo Nico and Vinz opened the show with a charismatic 30-minute set that culminated in their breakout summer hit Am I Wrong?

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2014 A14

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