Last June, Janelle Monae opened for Erykah Badu at the Chicago Theatre -- and completely upstaged her. In September, Monae performed at the Riviera Theatre, opening for her Atlanta pals in the band Of Montreal, and she was the only reason to attend the show. Friday night, Monae was back, this time at the Aragon Ballroom, performing first on a double bill with hitmaker Bruno Mars.
Did she blow Mars off the stage, too? She blew him clear to Pluto.
A hurricane of hip-hop, soul, funk, rock and pure Afro-futurist freakouts, the diminutive Monae commanded the Aragon stage with the energy of James Brown and the performance artistry of Peter Gabriel. For an hour she trotted through a dozen genres with a frightening power that crackled through the ballroom, leading a manic and occasionally costumed 15-piece ensemble that included horns, strings, dancers and a very versatile guitarist. The sold-out crowd, seemingly dominated by female Mars fans, wasn't always sure what to make of her.
The first song Monae spit out, a rapid-fire rap called "Dance or Die," lays down the Monae philosophy quickly: a lot of words and big ideas -- but dance, for the love of something, dance! Most of her show drew from her stunning debut, "The ArchAndroid," my No. 1 album of 2010. It's a concept album about an android freedom fighter and a time traveler from 2719, a musical masterpiece and an ambitious narrative that allows for a few over-the-top theatrical moments on stage. Like when she entered the stage in a hooded robe, which with a flourish became a cape -- the first of many James Brown allusions. Masked figures crawled after her. Laser-like lights fired as she sang wearing a one-lensed, robot-like set of shades. During "Mushrooms and Roses," Monae became Monet, standing at an easel while she sang and painting a nude female figure on a canvas. Art rock, indeed.
She paused twice in the cacophony to deliver sweet Michael Jackson covers -- a soaring rendition of "Smile" (Charlie Chaplin's original tune) with her guitarist, a Tuck & Patti moment that let her vocal melismas run free, and the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," a trifle she ended by saying, "And now, back to the future!" before re-caping and launching into the painting bit. "Sincerely, Jane" found her moonwalking, and that's after the operatic break and the Van Halen guitar solo. "Cold War" killed. "Tightrope" was tight, and featured her James Brown foot shuffle. She ended the show yeowling in the middle of the audience, leading the bewildered bunch in la-la-la's before tearing at the stage skirt and turning her pretty, powerful voice into a wailing fury.
She must go back stage every night, poke Mars in the chest and say, "Follow that, mother f---er!"
The two performers have little in common but some business connections, their age (both 25) and a love for James Brown. The Grammy-winning Mars is out on the strength of his debut, too, "Doo-Wops & Hooligans" (and free after pleading guilty to felony cocaine possession in February), though it seems as if he's been around much longer. That's because he's been co-writing hits for so many others, including B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" and Cee Lo Green's "F--- You."
His mostly mid-tempo, crooning set was a definite downshift from Monae's wild abandon, and his lazy, smug drifting about the stage was certainly dull after the previous showmanship. With a guitar around his neck nearly the whole time, even though he only soloed during the very last song, Mars telegraphed every cheer he got, thrusting his hips and pointing to his crotch and generally throwing off his considerable vocal talent and way with melody in favor of selling his sex appeal. The screaming, swooning women and girls in the crowd probably won't quibble with that decision -- they cheered him just for wiping his brow -- but the surrender of musicianship for toothy smiles made for a dull show.
During "The Lazy Song," backup singer Phillip Lawrence did his bit imitating a Valley Girl, and the song stopped while Mars laughed and the audience applauded. It's a cheap little gag, pretty funny, but not the way Mars characterized it: "This right here is musical artistry at its finest," he said before making Lawrence repeat the gag. Bruno, you need to watch Janelle's show to learn about musical artistry. You've got nothin' on her.
Janelle Monae's set list Friday night:
Dance or Die
I Want You Back
Mushrooms & Roses
Come Alive (War of the Roses)
Bruno Mars' set list Friday night:
The Other Side
Top of the World
Our First Time
The Lazy Song
Count on Me
Liquor Store Blues
Nothin' on You
Just the Way You Are
Somewhere in Brooklyn
Talking to the Moon
Photo above left: Janelle Monae performs in February at the Grammy Awards.