Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Singer-songwriter Bruno Mars rides his talent to the top

Singer-songwriter Bruno Mars will make a tour stop Sunday at Louisville's KFC Yum Center for a show that starts at 7:30 p.m.
Singer-songwriter Bruno Mars will make a tour stop Sunday at Louisville's KFC Yum Center for a show that starts at 7:30 p.m. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Bruno Mars, Fitz and the Tantrums

7:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at KFC Yum Center, 1 Arena Plaza, Louisville. $36.50-$85.50. Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

Make a checklist of everything necessary for becoming a bona fide pop star in the 21st century, and you probably will find the job requirements haven't changed much over the years.

We're not talking about an artist or innovator here. We're referring to the kind of performer who knows all about image and bankability but can back up stardom with a commendable level of honest talent and show at least some willingness to step outside the comfort zone that paved his or her way to the top.

It's a mighty short list. Take away the American Idols, the Justin Biebers and the obviously manufactured celebs with laughably short artistic shelf lives, and it shrinks even further. But examine the final cut and you are sure to find the name of Bruno Mars.

A multiinstrumentalist, a composer who has written or co-written hits for numerous stars (Flo Rida and K'naan, among them) and a singer with one of the richest pop-soul voices to hit the airwaves in years, Mars is every bit the modern pop renaissance man. Audiences have been quick to pick up on that appeal, too.

The 27-year-old Hawaii-born singer's 2010 debut album, Doo-Wops and Hooligans, became a No. 3 hit that yielded a trio of chart-topping singles, including the Grammy-winning Just the Way You Are. Last year's sophomore recording, Unorthodox Jukebox, entered the Billboard 200 album chart at No. 1.

A voice of seemingly boundless range and stamina drives those records. But also at work is a remarkably schooled sense of soul. There are suggestions in Mars' singing that reach back to vintage R&B. While his music has all the commercial smarts to work effortlessly within modern pop and, at times, hip-hop, the retro design of Mars' vocals, songs and especially band arrangements is undeniable.

"It was less like the concert of a superstar than one of the great funk and soul bands of the 1970s," wrote Jon Caramanica of The New York Times in his review of a June performance by Mars in Brooklyn. "That decade is a touchstone for Mr. Mars."

Mars officially comes to Kentucky this weekend by way of a performance in Louisville that also features the West Coast pop soul of Fitz and the Tantrums as opening act (see story, Page 8).

Get your Goat

Far and away the top road trip pick of the week ahead will be a trek Tuesday to PNC Pavilion, 6295 Kellogg Avenue in Cincinnati, for what will be the only — as of now — regional performance by the folk-informed string quartet known as The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

A bluegrass pack doubling as a chamber group bidding for a place in the jazz world? That's as good a summation as any of the mission on which these four world-class journeymen — cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddler Stuart Duncan — engage on their outstanding self-titled 2011 debut album.

As a bonus, Tuesday's concert will feature as special guest Americana songstress Aoife O'Donovan, whose Fossils is one the year's great debut solo recordings. It's an obvious fit, though. O'Donovan harmonizes with Thile on two compositions (Here and Heaven and No One But You) from The Goat Rodeo Sessions. (8 p.m. $49.50- $69.50. Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

Isbell calling

Luckily, a Lexington show by Jason Isbell has become a semi-regular occurrence. But his return to Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester Street, on Thursday will be the Alabama songwriter's first local visit since the release of his critically lauded album Southeastern. Isbell discusses the record and its inspirations this weekend's at (9 p.m. $17 in advance, $20 day of show. (859) 368-8871.


Randy Newman at Lexington Opera House: "I'm playing a lot of songs nobody likes tonight," remarked Newman after completing a stark and sobering reading of Bad News From Home.

Well, that assessment might be a touch harsh. Truth to tell, the audience was particularly attentive and appreciative of the 34-song program the veteran songsmith and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee delivered. But even those well versed in Newman's music probably were unprepared for the thematic and emotive severity that powered many of his best — though not always best-known — songs. Such jolts, however, were the high points of this consistently involving solo piano concert.

Among the many fascinating aspects to Newman as a performer and composer was how unsuspecting he seemed to be. He was often a master wisecracker, capable of songs that mocked affluence and privilege as much as they did personal insecurities and general criminal mischief. Newman also spun song intros into wry yarns, such as the one about publicly bearing his teenage daughter's belittlements ("You're not that famous"). That served as a preface to The World Isn't Fair, a song that turned a narrative about sitting through his child's school orientation into a social discourse with Karl Marx. Yeah, buddy. That's rock 'n' roll.

Just as engaging were My Life Is Good and I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It), two savage glimpses of celebrity lifestyle sung from the perspective of a pair of very different high-life deadbeats.

Then there were tunes that were vastly darker, like Shame, in which you almost felt a little queasy in singing along (Newman instructed the crowd on the one-word chorus). When a verse called for the song's narcissistic sleazeball character to shout "shut up," a few patrons thought it was Newman himself who was losing his cool. That's how involving his tunes became and how fully he inhabited the morbid characters that drove them.

Contrasting all of that were the songs that simply stopped you cold — quiet and unsettling sagas like Real Emotional Girl, Baltimore and especially In Germany Before the War. Newman served them all straight-faced with the same low, gloriously unschooled moan of a voice that has remained knowing and unblemished through the years.

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