Bruno Mars, Café de Paris, London
C W Stoneking, Komedia, Brighton
The sharp-suited Hawaiian looks great, has an album at the top of the charts and a calculated charm that works. What a shame that his easy funk-pop has all the sentiment of a Hallmark card
Sunday 30 January 2011
Turn to the left: VIP area. Turn to the right: VIP area. Straight ahead: sardines.
At the best of times, the Café de Paris is already the sort of venue that makes you feel that you're allowed in only under sufferance. Tonight, getting further than the lobby is a bigger challenge.
"I know it's a little hot and a little tight," says the disembodied voice of Bruno Mars somewhere beneath a neon sign reading Doo-Wops and Hooligans, the title of the album which currently sits at the top of the UK charts. If we were any more tightly packed, we'd be getting elastic marks from other people's underwear.
A hat-loving Hawaiian from Honolulu, Mars has craftily inveigled himself, via a series of co-writes and guest spots, into a situation where he bestrides the planet like a merciless H G Wells tripod. Martian songwriting credits include "Right Round" for Flo Rida and "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan, but it's his high-profile collaborations with B.o.B. and Travie McCoy that have turned the 25-year-old into a household name (even if that name isn't his own: he was born Peter Gene Hernandez). It's been a calculated ascent, and it's working brilliantly. The eyes of Bruno Mars are on the prize.
The holders of the hottest ticket in town are mostly industry types, but make no mistake: when this guy goes on tour properly, there'll be hysteria. When he says "It wasn't so long since we were playing bars and clubs", it's with the humility of a man who knows he'll never need to do that again.
His stock in trade is bustling funk-pop, smooth soul-rock and light acoustic reggae. He's Mike Posner meets Orson meets Maroon 5 meets Jack Johnson meets Mark Ronson. It's all mainstream fare, tailor made to be heard at low volume on the nation's office radios. A bit of Mars a day helps Britain work, rest and play.
It doesn't hurt that he's a looker. Mars only has to say the word "ladies" in his smoky voice for the ambient crowd noise suddenly to leap as many octaves as decibels. He also has a relaxed charm that you wouldn't necessarily expect from a man who has a potential prison sentence hanging over him for a Las Vegas cocaine bust.
Suited and booted in Blues Brothers get-ups, he and his backing musicians are like a particularly expensive wedding band, slickly pleasing the crowd with rehearsed tricks like a live mash-up of "Billie Jean" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and a cheesy London-based rap which name-drops Buckingham Palace.
The much-covered-on-X-Factor "Billionaire" highlights an interesting new phenomenon: aspiration inflation. It wasn't long ago that "millionaire" was the shorthand for success in pop's lyrical lexicon, but any Tom, Dick or Andre 3000 can be a mere millionaire these days. These days, being "on the cover of Forbes magazine, standing next to Oprah and the Queen" is where it's at. The song was inspired, he tells us, by Barrett Strong's "Money", and Mars attacks that Motown relic tonight with a fiery Beatles-in-Hamburg brio.
But the loudest "awww!" noises are reserved for the soft-centred Hallmark card sentiments of the hits "Nothing on You" and "Just the Way You Are" (his first British No 1), which are fiendishly well judged to melt the hearts of their target market. This guy knows precisely what he's doing, and it's hard not to have a sneaking admiration for that. Love him or merely tolerate him, for the time being there's definitely life on Mars.
C W Stoneking is a 36-year-old from Australia, born to American parents and raised in the small Aboriginal community of Papunya, Northern Territory. With two slow-burner albums to his name (2005's King Hokum, 2008's Jungle Blues), he finds himself perfectly placed to catch the wave of all things vintage.
Brylcreemed and dickie-bowed, a ukulele hanging around his neck, Stoneking and his Primitive Horn Orchestra (trumpet, trombone, tuba) play a bewitchingly believable combination of dark Dixieland jazz and Louisiana jug band blues. Ghosts of Al Bowlly and Leon Redbone echo through such songs as "Dodo Blues" and "Don't Go Dancin' at the Darktown Strutters' Ball". Even Stoneking's speech defect (a mild lisp) has the effect, by happy accident, of making him sound as though he's crackling through a wind-up gramophone.
The subtleties are somewhat wasted on a crowd who chatter loudly throughout, suggesting that some see Stoneking as mere period background music. But this man isn't a mere stylist: he's a genuinely brilliant songwriter, in any genre and any era.
He's also a masterly teller of tall tales, like the one about hillbilly hero Jimmie Rodgers becoming a deity in Africa after a missionary left some LPs behind. Just when you're lost in some 1930s reverie, he snaps you out of it by mentioning his little brother being a techno DJ. Brilliantly done, and far more honest than the manufactured authenticity of, say, a Seasick Steve.
If someone in the near future tells you they're selling their electric guitar and buying a banjo, C W Stone- king might just be the reason why.
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