A-Mraz-ing Performance: Jason Mraz effortlessly entertains fans at the Bowl

Jason Mraz

For an example of how atomized popular music culture has become in the last 10 years or more, how popular groups can run on a parallel line with whole sectors of the population unaware of their success and/or everpresence, look no further than pop singer Jason Mraz. At the Santa Barbara Bowl on Friday night, half the songs were met with applause of recognition, many with the audience singing along. To this reviewer, none of these songs were even remotely familiar, not even in a “didn’t I hear this while shopping/watching television” kind of way. Yet here’s an artist who broke some sort of record by staying in the Billboard Top 100 for 78 weeks with “I’m Yours,” his lilting piffle of a summer song.

OK, so maybe I’m out of touch and listen to KCRW too much (in my basement), but Mr. Mraz was a new one on me. And, despite his predilections and faults, the man is a pure entertainer, at ease onstage like he owns it, and leading the audience like he knows them. Online haters critique this as ballooning ego but hey, you gotta have some to get anywhere, and Mr. Mraz has a Grammy. No, make that two.

Plus, he has a sense of humor. He brought a wriggling, shy fan onstage to serenade and dance with, proceeded to intentionally get her name wrong five times, and fed her what looked like melon chunks from a Tupperware container. (This came from his little performer’s table, which contained water and, for some unnamed reason, a potted plant. Perhaps it gives him comfort.)

He led the girls and the boys in a separate sing-along to “I’m Yours,” making the boys sing falsetto, and the girls sing down below their range. In the middle of the relatively serious “Coyotes” he launched into a straight-up impression of an opera soprano. Within the often tricky arrangements and large band under his wing, this was quite impressive.

Mr. Mraz, who now has three albums to his credit, mixes a little bit of everything in his music. A lot of it feels and sounds like Jack Johnson-style singer-songwriter territory. A lot of white reggae infects his voice, and behind the cockeyed smile there beats a sensitive soul, the young man who is glad to meet a girlfriend’s parents for the first time. In “What Mama Say,” when he happily tells a girl “I’m gonna make you a mama too,” it doesn’t sound filthy, it sounds like a lifetime commitment, and of a life of changing diapers with a smile. (You can bet there’s squealing after a line like that.)

His voice at times sounds like Paul Simon (as it does in “Frank D. Fixer,” a paean to his granddad) and his lyrics go in search of rhymes like Hal David (“Don’t Change at All”), with rhymes that lurch between clichéd and simplistic to strained and obvious.

He is at ease in solo mode behind a guitar, like on his opening number, as well as in front of a full band, like “The Dynamo of Volition,” which introduced the full group of a drummer, a percussionist, guitar, bass, keys and a brass trio, and the song’s brass charts put in mind the smooth summer jazz-pop of Style Council, and the shadow of the ’80s loomed long whenever there was a sax solo. (One could make the case that Mr. Mraz’s sophisticated but conservative grooves are a gateway drug to smooth jazz for young impressionable kids. Won’t somebody think of the children?)

But for each misstep a slow as molasses ballad, over-earnest lyrics ? Mr. Mraz redeemed himself with a joke, or his powerful voice, or his enthusiasm. It also helped that the sound mix at the Bowl was sharp and perfect.

An equal amount of screams greeted the night’s special guest, Colbie Caillat, who sauntered on stage Cher-like to join Mr. Mraz in “Lucky,” their hit single together. A treat for the fans, it did point out how weak Ms. Caillat’s voice stands compared to Mr. Mraz’s, and how affected it is with Mariah Carey-isms.

The encore of four songs was all about pleasing the crowd, ending on two covers, a superb “Rock With You,” tapping into the groove and feel of Michael Jackson’s original without descending to imitation; and a disco-fied “All You Need Is Love,” sending everyone out humming a song by a little-known group (at least to the tweens.)

All this demonstrated that Mr. Mraz on record is less than half the man he is onstage ? anybody seeking out the studio albums will be disappointed with their neutered sound.

Opening for Mr. Mraz, Christina Perri also demonstrated a fine set of lungs and songwriting prowess. Best known for “Jar of Hearts,” which moved major digital units after it was featured on “So You Think You Can Dance,” Ms. Perri fortunately has better songs in her repertoire. Let’s hope she gets the chance to get them out there.

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