You ever been around somebody who's had a near-death experience? Notice how they're just a little more gracious than the rest of us, and perhaps a little more sincere? Or how they don't take life's fleeting moments -- you know, the ones we find tedious and mundane -- for granted? Coming face to face with your own demise does something to you. Last night, John Mayer had the distinct air of someone who's come back from the brink.
Lest we forget, it was just a little more than six months ago that Mayer's career seemed as good as dead. Thanks to a string of eyebrow-raising quotes attributed to him in consecutive interviews in Rolling Stone and Playboy, in which he rhapsodized about the explosiveness of a certain past paramour and her respective lady parts, discussed the frequency and his pronounced proclivity for porn and self-gratification and then capped it by firing off a few racially tinged sentiments, Mayer essentially rendered himself persona non grata.
After those revealing interviews were published, Mayer wisely stepped back from the searing heat of the limelight and concentrated on doing what he does best, making music, as a form of damage control. And it seems to have worked. Luckily for him, we all have the retention capabilities of Nemo's absentminded mate Dory when it comes to tracking the missteps of various celebrities. In many cases, if enough time passes -- and with the round-the-clock news cycle we live in, that can often mean just a few months -- and you're genuinely contrite, today's pariah can become tomorrow's heartrending story of redemption.
So, the $64,000 question last night: Had enough time passed? Were we all back in his corner? From the way he came out swinging, immediately unleashing a flurry of scorching blues riffs with a look of steely-eyed determination, it was clear that Mayer was all about business. But as he launched into "Vultures," you got the sense that, in the very least, this notion was on his mind -- if for no other reason than his choice of openers. Although the song was written years before, the sentiment is easily applicable now. The incisive lyrics acknowledge the faceless detractors while expressing a resolve to make it through to the other side.
"Down to the wire/I wanted water/But I'll walk through the fire/If this is what it takes/To take me even higher/Then I'll come through/Like I do/When the world keeps/Testing me, testing me, testing me."
"How did they find me here?/What do they want from me?/All of these vultures hiding/Right outside my door/I hear them whispering/They're trying to ride me out/They've never gone this long/Without a kill before."
When Mayer traded his golden Strat for an acoustic and queued up "No Such Thing," he still seemed to be in the midst of shaking off some pent-up nervous energy. Rolling through a very lived-in version of the song, he took liberties with the original melody -- in a way that only comes from playing a tune over and over again on the road -- and showcased a throaty croon that split the difference between Dave Matthews and Isaac Slade, sounding at least a half step lower than the original.
As he finished that song, any lingering trepidation he might have had about his reception was unanimously extinguished by the rapturous applause he received, which he readily acknowledged. "If the first two songs feel like you just made this feel," he exclaimed, "then this show is about to go off!"
Indeed. From this point on, Mayer was noticeably energized, confident and comfortable, not to mention firmly in the pocket and completely in command. Shedding his jacket to reveal an armful of tattoos, the troubadour, looking a bit like Orlando Bloom channeling Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid, engaged the crowd in his typically disarming sort of way.
Ah, there he is, the charming dude everybody knows and loves.
First he asked how many people had an amazing summer. That was followed by a query of how many people found love this summer. Finally, he asked how many knew that this summer wasn't about love, before asking if everybody had a good couple of hookups. With that, he sang refrain from "Beast of Burden" and wed it fairly seamlessly into "Perfectly Lonely," which pivots on the idea that "I don't belong to anybody, therefore nobody belongs to me."
From there, Mayer led his band through a dubby version of Bill Withers's classic "Ain't No Sunshine," which, like the Journey interpolation he ended the set with, sort of drained all the pathos from the original. Playing a red hollow-body, Mayer exhibited some stellar fretwork as he stretched the tune out, adding Santana-style riffs with Eddie Van Halen's trademark tapping technique - all while offering up some serious Oh! face.
"That's a Bill Withers tune," he remarked. "Thank you for obliging me."
Our pleasure, man. Don't mention it.
This wasn't last night, but you'll get the gist.
Next up was a highlight of the evening that didn't involve Mr. Mayer. Guitarist David Ryan Harris, one of two six-stringers in Mayer's unit, sang a mostly a capella intro to "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" in an utterly gorgeous, otherworldly, Marvin Gaye-esque falsetto that could literally bring traffic on the Autobahn to a screeching halt.
After that, the set briefly took a slight dip with "Bigger Than My Body," even though Mayer tossed in a bit of "Electric Avenue" before grabbing an acoustic and performing a medley of "rarities," as he put it -- knowing damn well there really is no such thing when it comes to his fans, who clearly adore everything he's written. "I'm going to see if I still have everybody," he remarked, before playing a four-song set that concluded with "3 X 5," adding that that one was for the completist.
Just in case he did happen to alienate the less initiated, though, Mayer came out of that one with a song everybody knows, even casual fans, a tune he referred to as his old friend, from back before he found cooler friends to hang out with. This old friend, he said, referring to "Your Body Is a Wonderland," afforded him the luxury of making a living while writing sharper songs. "I'm playing it tonight," he said, "like I'm high-fiving an old friend, as a way of saying thanks."
By this point in the set, Mayer clearly realized he was amongst admirers, ones whom he considers friends. "How's the back row, people?" he asked. "I would say nosebleed seats, but you kind of live in a nosebleed city." With that, he teased the crowd with a few OhOhOh's he pulled from Zeppelin as he queued up "Heartbreak Warfare." As if to punctuate the point, Mayer played the tune on a white Stratocaster affixed with a broken heart sticker on the body.
Once the warfare died down, Mayer summoned Hendrix ("Yeah, dig, it's a really groovy thing, gonna get outta sight now") through the spirit of Stevie Ray Vaughan, as he played a absolutely wahtastic rendition of "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." Playing one-handed leads, Mayer essentially put on an impromptu guitar clinic, showcasing his chameleon-like tendency to emulate other guitarists... could've sworn he somehow even evoked a little David Gilmore in there for good measure.
You can hear the influence of other musicians in his songwriting, too. Take "Who Says," for instance, which he played next (and name-checked Denver in): If you listen closely, you can hear shades of Paul Simon.
Here's where the show became willfully ironic. After commenting on the various signs strewn across the crowd, Mayer said something about no more "talky, talky," it's time for more "singy singy," and then went into "Gravity." Midway through the song, as couples were slow dancing in the crowd, he talked about how the song was originally written about anything working against you -- in his case, it was the pull of drugs while being on the road, something he said he's never imbibed in.
Fair enough. The song that preceded this one, however, as you might recall, is built around the refrain "Who says I can't get stoned?" The incongruity doesn't end there, though. Mayer then launched into a windy rant about kneeling before his amplifier and praying to past guitar greats, hoping to evoke their spirit -- players like Hendrix, for instance.
Then he talked about how he doesn't want his life to mirror theirs, pointing out how the guitar hero died at the young age of 27. He then humbly acknowledged that he's not as good as Hendrix, and later expressed gratitude that he's able to play the guitar well enough to get a few people to come out.
From there, Mayer's banter became a little more abstract, as he put it, as he talked about fake hate and how it doesn't exist and went on to mention how some people lose sleep over something somebody said on the Internet. He urged people to shut it out. "It doesn't exist," he insisted, noting how no one is as scornful in real life. He went on add that the Internet could go fuck itself.
This was right about the time it must've occurred to Mayer that the show was being streamed on...wait for it...the Internet. Acknowledging that he had already exceeded the attention span of the audience, he offered Ustream viewers a concession.
To paraphrase: If you're listening I offended those of you watching on Ustream, come up to me and I'll give you a high-five and a hug. He followed this up by pointing out that he has an analog heart that you can't plug in. "This shit don't have USB," he said. "It's just me. I can't hook up to 3G. I've just got to let it be."
Point taken, good sir. From there, Mayer closed out the set with a succession of subtler numbers, including "Do You Know Me?" in which he traded licks with the sax player on a miniature classical guitar. During "Why Georgia," Mayer spent a good amount of time expressing his gratitude, noting how much of a privilege it is to be able to play Red Rocks again, and that the fact that he's able to do so is directly thanks to the fans, those assembled in front of him.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am to you for buying a ticket," he said, adding a few beats later, "I hope we get to do this again sometime, and if we don't, I'm the happiest I've ever been. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
With that, he ended the set with "Half of My Heart," a song from his latest album, Battle Studies, that Taylor Swift appears on. In a talk-sing delivery partway through the song, Mayer opened up a bit and talked about knowing what he needs and just giving it to himself (skeet skeet), but how he's bored with that and just wants to find the one person who he can't outsmart, the one that he never saw coming ('cause he sees everything coming).
And he went on with this bit about wanting to go to bed at eleven, leaving a key at the front desk and having his gal slip in undetected except for the click of her key in the door in the wee hours of the morning when her flight lands and then having her way with him.
A number of ladies in the audience, it seemed, would respectfully like to be considered for that role. "We gotta go," he concluded, "but I'll leave you with this, a little bit of advice." The advice - in the words of Journey: "Don't Stop Believing."
After leaving the stage briefly, Mayer and company returned for a one-song encore and some final words of wisdom. "I have this thing where my brain realizes when my heart's going to say something sincere," he said. "Find some good love. If it ain't right, just walk away." The night ended with Mayer playing "Edge of Desire," with a few lines of Van Morrison's "Crazy Love."
As the lights came on and folks started making their way toward the exit, Mayer was already on his way down the mountain aboard a black shuttle van (or at least we think it was him), being whisked away to wherever he was headed next, courtesy of a police escort. The time: 10:50 p.m. Maybe he wasn't kidding about that whole being-in-bed-by-eleven thing.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I dig more than a handful of Mayer songs, "Slow Dancing In a Burning Room" and "I'm Going to Find Another You," among them. Beyond that, while I can appreciate his musicianship -- however you feel about his music, you can't eff with the dude's guitar playing -- I wouldn't necessarily list myself as a fan. By the Way: Walked in just in time to catch Owl City's last song, "Fireflies," and to hear Adam Young bantering about the evil blue Mustang sculpture at D.I.A., and how's he's not sure about it, but how he's willing to get past it as our relationship progresses. Random Fact: A mysterious kitchen-cafeteria-meets-broken-sewer-line smell wafted through the crowd during the first half of Mayer's set. What the hell was that? Anybody else smell it?
SETLIST John Mayer 09.01.10 | Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Vultures No Such Thing Perfectly Lonely Ain't No Sunshine (When She's Gone) Slow Dancing in a Burning Room Bigger Than My Body Love Soon, My Stupid Mouth, Comfortable, 3x5 Your Body Is a Wonderland Heartbreak Warfare Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) Who Says Gravity Do You Know Me? Why Georgia Half of My Heart
Edge of Desire
Update:Tidied up a few quotes, corrected David Gilmore's name (previously: Roger Gilmore) and added full Ustream embed after the jump. -dh
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