It’s pretty cool when an international rock group of this caliber and history does a date like Fresno or Bakersfield. Like a friend of mine had mentioned, it keeps us from having to fork out the extra money and time spent traveling to a primary market like LA or San Francisco. Gigs like that are usually a 3 hour drive for most people in this area. Fans in the Central Valley have to pick and choose wisely when it comes to pricey out of town “big” gigs like that. And these days it seems like EVERYONE’s touring. To be more accurate, there are more options to choose from, with groups hitting the road with more frequency even without new material to support, flooding the market with an overwhelming amount of live options. The Cult, at least, were still touring in support of Hidden City, a worthy offering of new material featuring the rocking “Deeply Ordered Chaos.” The Cult have been called the hard rock version of U2. I don’t really see the comparison, but for me, the Cult are a mixture of post-punk hard rock infused with blues and dark wave. Think of bluesy hard rock like Led Zeppelin, plus the baritone of Jim Morrison, the psychedelic mysticism of The Doors, with a dash of Joy Division and early Cure. It was an early set, beginning around 7:15pm with no opener. The energy level in the venue was ok but not quite up to Cult standards. Ian Astbury was engaging the crowd and playfully remarked “tomorrow you will get Country annnd Western. But tonight, you will get Rock n’ Roll.” Numbers-wise, it was a strong turn-out. From what I could see the venue was at least 3/4 full, which is great considering the area and minimal promotion. The Central Valley is a hot spot for country, big name pop and urban acts. The unfortunate reality of a well known rock group touring in a secondary market (especially a rural secondary market) is that you’re going to get an audience of mostly casual fans. Support for rock artists in this area is difficult to assess or even describe. There was a healthy sized crowd present and they were appreciative, but it appeared that most of them were only familiar with the group’s mainstream period of work, albums like Love, Electric and Sonic Temple. Sure there were die-hards present, rocking out, singing their lungs out to the majority of the live set, but from my position at least, they were few and far between. Astbury commented that the group would be performing 3 new selections, and in a playfully self-deprecating move, said “Don’t drift away now, come back, come back, it’s not like we’re in Fresno every week…get it while it’s hot!”
The performance was mostly good. For most of the set, the group played ferociously. John Tempesta’s drums thumped and rumbled along while Billy Duffy’s guitar smoldered. Damon Fox of Big Elf was recently added to the touring line up, handling keyboard and rhythm guitar duties. Grant Fitzpatrick on bass is another recent addition to the lineup, rounding out the rock solid rhythm section. The live renditions flew over with power. Stand out performances for me were “Wild Flower,” “Rain,” “Fire Woman,” “Deeply Ordered Chaos,” “Love Removal Machine” and “Sweet Soul Sister.” Frustratingly, what was an otherwise very solid set tanked with “She Sells Sanctuary,” one of their most beloved and widely-known numbers. The vocal delivery was uninspired and lacked effort. Astbury was phoning it in. The first verse was practically spoken word. The rest of the vocal performance was just as disappointing, picking up only at the outro. I had waited the whole set to hear this song in particular and upon hearing it live, I thought “what the hell!?” I don’t know if Astbury’s short winded vocals made the rest of the band sound bad, but on SSS, Billy Duffy’s guitar tone wasn’t as magical and John Tempesta’s drumming sounded restrained and tame compared to his playing on the rest of the set. It was like the energy level got dialed back down when there should have been a climax. Pardon the analogy, but it’s like we got blue-balled. The group rescued the set when they returned for an encore of “Love Removal Machine.” It was a good ending to the show but I was still bummed about the lackluster rendition of “She Sells Sanctuary.” Still glad I was able to catch The Cult at a local venue, makes me wonder what the gig would have been like in Oakland or LA.
My lady and I actually scored some pretty good seats for this gig. At 10am on the dot, I logged onto ticketmaster the first day of the onsale and scooped up some first row Loge seats. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a full-fledged “show,” an actual concert spectacle. There was the performance and then there was the show. The band put on an amazing performance, professional, exhilarating and super entertaining. And the pyro, video, light and lazer show were performances unto themselves. Bruno Mars and the Hooligans turned the Save Mart Center into one giant, glitzy blow-out. Even with all the flash and fancy production, the group was unbelievably loose and playful. There was plenty of room for improvisation, a playfulness with the audience, and they possessed what seemed like an endless supply of spontaneity. Those guys weren’t just working…yes they were working their asses off, but they were having FUN and one couldn’t deny the joy onstage and off.
The start time was scheduled for 8pm. Opener Aloe Blacc promptly began his set and he did a great job of setting the stage for Bruno. Aloe Blacc did an impressive job of engaging the audience and keeping the arena captivated. He’s a natural performer and he’s a great mixture of soul, funk, r&b and hip hop. The arena was mostly full by the time Blacc’s set began. He played to a welcoming and appreciative crowd. The rhythm section laid down a fat beat and what I found really interesting is that his drummer used a low tuned snare, making for a warm, thuddy sound reminiscent of 70s soul recordings. Think of the snare drum sound on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” In fact Stevie Wonder played the drums on that recording and he had a tshirt draped over the drum itself, giving it that low-fi, low pitched sound. In fact during his set, Blacc reminisced about soul and r&b artists from generations ago, particularly Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers. Blacc is the perfect successor to artists like that. He had the look and he definitely had the sound. Highlights for me included a rousing performance of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” Wow, that track came alive and I could see the smiling faces on the floor. It was like a wave, the crowd was being won over row by row. I didn’t realize this but Mike Enzinger, guitarist for INCUBUS plays the acoustic guitar parts on this song. Other songs included “I Need a Dollar,” Loving You is Killing Me” and of course the other stand out gem, “The Man.” First time I saw that music video I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Blacc’s set ended triumphantly, I’m sure he gained a ton of new fans that night. After what seemed like an extra long wait (45 minutes actually), Bruno Mars and The Hooligans took the stage to rabid applause.
Bruno easily channeled the spirit of Motown in his performance, without looking like some kind of wannabe. It was like watching a modern version of The Temptations or the Jackson 5. From the smooth and soulful vocals to the choreographed foot work, the entire group grooved, boogied and danced for 100 minutes or so. Join The Hooligans and you’ll probably lose weight and come out looking like an athlete. It was a controlled energy. I can only compare it to the onstage energy of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, only with greater style and less manic lol. Bruno Mars is an insanely talented multi-instrumentalist, playing piano, acoustic and electric guitar and even taking over some lead work during a few songs. He’s also a sick drummer, laying down an entertaining mini-solo leading into “Locked Out of Heaven.” His vocal delivery was so sweet and smooth, not a single mess-up and he made it all seem so easy, just pure fun and joy. The Hooligans are a 9 piece group including Bruno, complete with the usually combo of drums, bass, keys, guitar, as well as trumpet, trombone and what looked like a baritone sax player. Phil Lawrence served as back-up vox, trading leads with Bruno on several songs. John Fossit wowed me with a very impressive piano solo, showing off his technical wizardry and classical training. Eric Hernandez on drums provided an astonishing foundation. That back beat was perfect. The boom-cha of the bass drum and snare were so beefy, cutting and commanding. I love it when a rhythm section can shake the venue and make you feel the grooves in your chest. And honestly, a live band with a wimpy rhythm section will quickly kill the mood and the vibe. Not these guys.
It was definitely a show for the ladies. They swooned while he crooned. The group even serenaded “Danielle” in the front row, each of the group members taking turns with the mic, laying down their own version of a heart stopping R&B breakdown complete with the famous ‘slide-in’, finally ending with their patented “thug R&B breakdown” which probably melted the entire pit section of the audience. Girls were fanning themselves and squealing. It was a pop and R&B audience with fans of all ages, including young kids and some older folks. The house was definitely full. I surveyed the nosebleeds and couldn’t find an empty seat in the place. The audience was captivated and filled in nicely on the sing-along sections, especially to songs like “When I Was Your Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Nothin On You” and “Grenade.” I don’t know if many people caught this, but the group included a section of “It Will Rain” from the Twilight Saga (shudder), attached to “If I Knew.” What tripped me out were the surprise interpolations of R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” 2Pac and Dre’s “California Love.” Very sneaky, very cool. During the extended outro to “Just the Way You Are,” I swear I could hear Phredley Brown playing the guitar riff to The Cure’s “Push,” most likely just a happy accident, but it would be bitchin’ if the part was actually inspired by Robert Smith.
Aside from the tall lanky white guy that “surfed” to the music and his ex-stripper girlfriend (she moved like a stripper anyways), it was a pretty damn good show and well worth the money. At this point Bruno only has a couple albums worth of material, and the most recent release, Unorthadox Jukebox is less than 40 minutes in length! But the group was still able to stretch out their stage time, play a great variety of songs plus some covers and it was still a generous set.
Money (That’s What I Want) / Billionaire / I Need a Dollar
Show Me / Our First Time /California Love/ Pony /Ignition
If I Knew / It Will Rain
Nothin’ on You
When I Was Your Man
Just the Way You Are
Drum Solo / Locked Out of Heaven