Billboard Bits: Bruno Mars Joins MTV VMAs Lineup, Kanye West Slips Onstage
Billboard Bits: Bruno Mars Joins MTV VMAs Lineup, Kanye West Slips Onstage

One of the most surprising things about Bruno Mars is that he plays the guitar as well as he sings. Meaning, he's damn good at it.

But technical proficiency is only part of what made Mars' Wednesday night (May 11) concert in Miami, as part of his "Hooligans in Wonderland" tour with Janelle Monáe, so enthralling. Here is an artist who has scaled the Billboard charts -- multiple times -- by virtue of his soulful voice, a steady stream of catchy songs with compelling lyrics and melodies and surprising production (a toast to whomever came up with the drumbeat for "Grenade").

Live, Mars is much better.

It's not just that absolutely everything in the show is live; meaning, there isn't a single track or loop to be heard (not even in "Grenade," where Mars subbed that trademark drumroll for a wailing trumpet). It's also that Mars rocks hard on his guitar, imparting different textures to his pop material, and displays an onstage assurance, joie de vivre and smile that are irresistible. He comes across like the real thing, like few acts today do.

That may explain why the audience at the Fillmore was so eclectic, from tweens volubly surprised to see so many grownups, to teens, older couples and gay couples who likewise were whispering to each other: "I didn't know there were going to be so many kids here," as they sipped their drinks.

Culling largely from his solo album, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans," Mars performed with a sparse and tight band that included keyboard, bass, drums, three horns and his sidekick MC and vocalist (who, by the way, is the one who cries out "Oh my God, this is great" on "The Lazy Song"). Little else is needed with Mars' vocals, which he handles with ease: sometimes soaring, sometimes diminishing to a pianissimo over plucking guitar (or ukelele, in one song). The hits were all there, from "Billionaire" and "Just the Way You Are" to "Count on Me," as well as multiple nods to doo-wop, including a song performed a capella in four-part harmony with bandmembers -- and an opening homage to Chuck Berry.

It's well-known that as a kid, Mars was an Elvis Presley impersonator. This surely has contributed not only to his understanding of musical history and his sense of style in marrying old and new, but also to his suave onstage manner and his ability to touch everybody in a room. But from a purely sanguine music business point of view, it's simply comforting -- and validating -- to see chart artistry replicated and improved on the live stage.

Mars' performance was preceded by English rapper Plan B as the opening act and then by Monáe, whose show is all about drama, role playing and vocal chops. Hers were impressive, but some of Mars' nuance would have gone a long way.