The dream of the '90s was alive in South Philly Wednesday night as Bruno Mars, our reigning king of pop pastiche, mined the looks, sounds, and moves of eras past to maximum effect.
The throwback programming began with the 11-time Grammy winner's opening act, Boyz II Men. The Philadelphia natives earned a predictably exuberant ovation from the Wells Fargo Center, conducting a taut hit train that began with "Motownphilly" and made all the scheduled stops ("On Bended Knee," "End of the Road," "Water Runs Dry").
Including the legendary group on this portion of his 24K Magic World Tour was more than just savvy hometown pandering. It also set the tone for Mars' own package, a nostalgia-dipped swirl of imagery, clothes, and choreography from R&B's most fertile era. No song better matches this bygone vibe better than opener "Finesse," backed by towering panels that pulsed like a game of Simon.
Draped in bright, baggy Cross Colours gear (the clothier is an official sponsor), Mars and his band, The Hooligans, kept up the dance party energy with "Perm" and "Treasure." Then the tireless multi-instrumentalist shouldered an electric guitar to shout-out Prince with the purple laser-aided "Calling All My Lovelies."
An ultrasmooth, Isley-style groove off 2016's 24K Magic, "Lovelies" also featured a humorous interlude where Mars, holding a gigantic Zack Morris-style phone to his ear, ad-libbed a wistful answering machine message to a lover ("Are you seeing somebody else? One of the dudes from Boyz II Men?"). This probably seemed like science fiction to the young children in the crowd, none of whom I witnessed were ear-muffed for racier hits like "Chunky," "What I Like" or "Versace on the Floor."
I've always wondered how Mars, who sings almost exclusively about sex, cultivated a parent-approved, Wiggles-age fan base. I got my answer during "Runaway Baby," off his 2010 debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans. In the span of one lascivious pop-rock banger, Mars offered up a raucous James Brown breakdown and a modified school-dance "Shout," hushing up and hitting the floor, then rising up with a roar.