“We need for you to be cool,” said Jason Mraz as he walked onstage last night to introduce opening act Anya Marina. It was, as he elaborated, a request both literal and figurative. After all, the sold out crowd of 3,500 had assembled in Memorial Coliseum – a facility without air conditioning.
Wow. One weekend of 80 degree temps and we’re already undone by the heat. Well, not really. Listening to Mraz’s ultra sunny folk-pop, even in a sweaty indoor setting, was akin to a trip to the tropics. The 90 minute set used splashes of standardized soul against grooves established by Mraz on acoustic guitar and longtime ally Toco Rivera on percussion. Then there was the matter of Mraz’s very unforced sense of good cheer. While often bordering on simple blind optimism, there was little to fault in the wide eyed romanticism of Lucky (sung as a duet with Marina), the group chant that the singer initiated as a sort of meditative lead-in to A Beautiful Mess, and even the light funk procession of The Dynamo of Volition.
As chapters of a hippie dream, the tunes all coalesced nicely with help from a very portable three man horn section that relocated itself deep in the upper decks of the audience for Live High. Only the jam band-style psychedelia of Unfold, with beefy brass support from tenor saxophonist Carlos Sosa, hinted at something darker than Mraz’s endless summer pop.
Of course, the blissed out mega-hit I’m Yours fully ignited the crowd. Built upon neo-reggae grooves and intriguing group harmonies, the tune quickly surrendered to its Jamaican ancestry and became a loose, infectious cover of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds.
There were a few surprises along the way, as well. First off, Mraz largely ignored his first two albums. An encore of Mr. Curiosity, with Mraz singing in a peculiar but potently operatic tenor, and the Phil Collins pop-soul flavored The Remedy were among the very few exceptions. The real curve ball, though, was a cover of the Rick James funk staple Mary Jane. To absolutely no one’s shock, the song was transformed into another easygoing pop serenade tailor-made for the summer season that awaits this largely student audience in about two weeks.
Marina’s opening set tossed in a distinctive cover, too – of T.I.’s Whatever You Like. That suggested her 25 minute opening set was perhaps naughtier than it really was. In actuality, the Southern California singer’s pouty vocals were augmented only by solo guitar and drum samples during such original fare as Vertigo and the nicely percolating Move You. Audience patrons were politely receptive but restless. It was as if Marina became the only thing that stood between them and a serious blast of summer. And woe be to the singer that even threatens to block the sun from its hippie minions.