After Mayer Hawthorne, a multiracial band from Detroit, took the stage in matching red suits and played a set of neo-Motown tunes, a sort of carnival barker in a tuxedo and top hat introduced Monae, describing what was about to take place as an "emotion picture for your mind." As her ensemble of 16, including dancers, a horn section, keyboards, guitars and drums, took the stage, Monae made no attempt to distinguish herself. She turned out to be one of three figures clad in creepy black robes facing away from the audience.
Her relative anonymity would not last long. Almost as soon as Monae revealed herself, a chunk of her trademark pompadour fell down, never to be totally secured again. How could it? Monae danced. She pantomimed fights. She put on Star Trekky sunglasses. She painted a picture. She crowd-surfed. She flailed around on the ground.
And she sang -- while doing most of the above things -- about zombies, male-female relations, personal and social acceptance, and creativity. She played some of the best tracks from The ArchAndroid (but not, interestingly, "Wondaland"), her 2010 concept album that blends hip-hop, pop, Motown, rock, and world music rhythms. In addition to her own tracks, Monae covered the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and delivered a tear-jerking rendition of "Smile."
Monae has the range and expressive ability of a Broadway singer. She can wail; she can rap; she can hum; she can whisper; she can scat. When she invokes Michael Jackson, it's convincing -- except her voice is richer than Jackson's.
Androgynously sexy, Monae wore black pants, a tuxedo shirt, a black tie and black-and-white tap shoes. The KCK native didn't say much to the audience other than a brief acknowledgment of friends and family in the crowd. Her performance said enough. Throughout her set, the screen behind the stage was alight with variations of her flawless face, silhouettes of her dancing, and archival and faux-archival Motown-era footage. The purplish haze on the screen at times evoked another of Monae's admitted musical inspirations, Jimi Hendrix.
In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a performer weave so many influences into something so original, which is exactly why I didn't expect to stay through Bruno Mars' entire set.
Like Monae, Mars employs a lot of other musicians -- a horn section, back-up vocalists, plus the usual rock-and-roll array. Also like Monae, Mars is an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve. But Mars is less successful than Monae at combining his influences and his own ideas into something totally new. Even for pop songs, his lyrics are weak. (I find his rhyming of P90X and "some really nice sex" in "The Lazy Song" particularly grating.) But live, Mars possessed the kind of charisma one might expect from somebody who's been doing Elvis impersonations since he was 4 years old
Directly or indirectly, on Saturday Mars invoked Elvis Presley, James Brown, Usher and Barrett Strong. The admitted Motown devotee led into his own song "Billionaire" by dipping into "Money (That's What I Want)," the Strong tune later covered by the Beatles. Mars, who grew up in Hawaii, also traded his guitar for a ukulele on one song.
The dance-ready crowd loved every minute. Mars excels at owning the audience, through direct interaction, well-timed show-off moments and self-deprecation. Hearing loose, fully instrumental versions of all of Mars' ubiquitous radio tracks ("Nothing on You," "Grenade," "Just the Way You Are") reminded me that songs are not static creations. They are as alive as the people performing them. Even dumb pop songs can transcend fun to become something beautiful in the hands of the right musician.