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Music review: Bruno Mars, Train at Preakness Infield 2011

The music at Preakness Infield this year was hardly legendary, not as the Kegasus billboards wanted it to be anyway.

With headliners Bruno Mars and Train it could not have risen above the raucousness of a kegger organized by someone's dad.

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Their hour-long sets, which consisted of several popular covers and their own chart-toppers, were sweet, upbeat, and, like a Black-Eyed Susan, acceptable for a hot Spring day, but as instantly forgettable.

If anything, the headliners, along with Hotspur, who kicked off the main stage at around 11 a.m., and second stage headliners Puddle of Mudd, Mr. Greengenes, and Phil Vassar, were legendarily blasé.

It was in keeping with the plans of the organizers, who have said they wanted headliners this year that, while appealing to a 21 to 40 year old demographic, are tame, and family-friendly.

To that end, they could have scarcely had better bookings than today's. Both Train and Mars have a knack for producing highly commercial, radio-ready, PG-13 pop that can be tolerated by both young and old. They strike the perfect balance that organizers have sought for the Infield since the BYOB campus was banned: "Warm but not over the edge," as Train lead singer Pat Monahan said earlier this week.

Train played its role to perfection. They rocked the audience alright, into a stupor. Throughout its 80-minute set, the veteran adult contemporary band had a hard time engaging a crowd that was not much larger than what an early-afternoon performer would get at Virgin Mobile FreeFest and that seemed far more interested in its beer mugs.

Despite trying his hardest, Monahan had to instead resort to doing covers, passing out band t-shirts, and taking pictures of himself with fans' cameras. Before its two last songs, the biggest cheers had been for a pair of covers, a Zeppelin song, and an unfortunate "Umbrella," the Rihanna blockbuster.

After 16 years together, it seems the only people Train can rile up is the "Ramona and Beezus" set. For "She's on Fire," he invited on stage a group of tweens who wore "Trainette" tees and screamed in unison during the chorus, the clearest sign all afternoon that this we were at a new, calmer infield.

Monahan and his band begun at 1:06 p.m. with "If it's Love," a recent song he interrupted to tweet a picture of the crowd. Gotta up those followers! The rest of their set list was heavy on their 90s and early 2000s hits and lesser-known songs from "Save me San Francisco," their most recent album.

Sporting a waistcoat and a hairdo that suggested he'd just come from a wind tunnel, Monahan was on-point, gracious, and friendly to the otherwise nonchalant crowd.

The Zeppelin cover was his fifth song, and it was followed by "She's on Fire," which got a country-fied treatment. "I Got You," one of their better ballads off the new album, was breezy and earnest. For "Calling All Angels," another early hit, the crowd clapped along. Monahan gave it his all during "Free," playing the drums alongside drummer Scott Underwood.

But the crowd seemed uninterested. They didn't wake up from their coma until the last two songs of the afternoon, Train's most recent hit, "Hey, Soul Sister," and it's most well-known, "Drops of Jupiter."

Bruno Mars had better luck, but also resorted to popular covers to keep the easily distracted crowd's attention. His set, a half-hour shorter than initially advertised, was energetic, but most of all, sweet, even romantic at times. Mars, a young, gifted R&B crooner, specializes in uptempo ballads that can sometimes be touchingly poignant, an unthinkable genre for the infield headliners of the past, like Buckcherry, the guys responsible for "Crazy Bitch."

Mars walked on stage around 4 p.m. with "Top of the World," a booming song that nicely showed off his six-piece band, which included three dancing trumpeters. Halfway through, he tried on a James Brown impression, the first of several times he would invoke the spirit of dead star musicians. Michael Jackson and Nirvana would also follow. It was a charming move, and one that ingratiated him to the crowd.

By "Billionaire," his third song, they were singing along. He then started off what sounded like a cover of "Smells like Teen Spirit," the Nirvana classic, but mouthed the lyrics to Billie Jean, netting another big response. Quickly, he segued into a cover of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." While he was performing tried-and-true crowd favorites that belonged to others, he didn't have to tweet on stage like Monahan to connect to the crowd. He was a performer, at least, in tune with the taste of the audience before him.

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After an excellent "The Lazy Song," where he praises doing nothing but watching TV in his Snuggie, he played another Jackson classic, "ABC," no doubt thrilling the moms and dads in the audience, those smoking cigars and wearing big hats, who hadn't heard any of Mars' hits, all released within the last year and a half.

The crowd's interest slackened when he switched to a couple of slow ballads; on "Nothing on You," they simply nodded appreciatively. But, "Grenade," remixed here with a slight spaghetti Western undercurrent, had them singing along again.

Unlike Monahan, who hammed up his biggest hit, Mars wisely underplayed it, letting the crowd at the front take control. It was nearing five by then, and he ended the show by cooing "Just the Way You Are," another one of his ballads, and one of the most popular.

It was a fitting finale for an Infield that, like the song, was genial, and mostly civilized, drunk, if anything, on good spirits. By 5 p.m., the crowd was already fleeing to watch the ponies run at 20 past 6 p.m. Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas couldn't have timed it better himself.

Photo: Fans at Infield (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

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