Ed Sheeran really puts things into perspective.
With that orc-in-hobbit's-clothing worming his way into the hearts of unwary American teens, John Mayer's Saturday night show at the Xcel Energy Center offered a timely opportunity to revisit a 16 year career of benignly seductive pillow talk. Mayer's a crafty if plainspoken writer with modest insights into ordinary romantic dilemmas, he moves easily through an array of soulful soft-rock styles, and he's unashamed of his enthusiasm for the one love he can never let down -- his guitar.
Mayer divided his two-hour show into what the screen behind him (the stage's only adornment) referred to as “chapters”: a pair of full-band sets, a showcase for his blues trio, a (mostly solo) acoustic interlude, an encore, and an “epilogue.” Eternally collegiate in his “you're wearing that to meet my parents?” ensemble of sneakers, t-shirt, and sport coat, he's a solid performer but no showman, his deservedly ridiculed guitar faces less distracting than his David Byrne chicken-necking, his shaky leg and excitable bouncing somewhat endearing in their nothing-specialness.
Beginning with “Belief,” the set leaned heavily on Mayer's 2006 album Continuum, which stood as his best collection until the Friday release of The Search for Everything, a remarkably even-keeled breakup album that kicks away the usual crutches of bitterness and self-pity in favor of an almost reportorial calm. “Every crowd favorite begins as a new song,” he quipped apologetically, but, if anything, the recent release got short shrift, with just five of its twelve songs performed. Mayer also skimped a bit on his callow early work, though “Neon” got a real strummin'-in-the-dorm-stairwell acoustic workout and “Why Georgia” received a full-arena singalong response. Thankfully, no bodies were declared wonderlands.
What makes or breaks Mayer for you is his voice, a fizzy coo that resonates from deep within his sinuses, maybe a notch closer to Boz Scaggs than Dave Matthews on the sonorous nasality scale. If you imprinted on this sound in your romantically formative years it's got to trigger the same cozy feels as the smell of a freshman-year fling's t-shirt; if you're suspicious of guys like this (and why shouldn't you be?) it's a foghorn warning you away from the rocks of sentimentality. For the rest of us, Mayer radiates both gentle concern and unforced sincerity without quite articulating either; he generates moods rather than expressing emotions. In an age of vocal bombast, Mayer is an unfashionably underwrought singer.
Justly cast as a cad for his loose-lipped interview style, which might be charitably characterized as “smartest fratboy in your poli-sci seminar,” Mayer battles a rep as a sap that's less fair to him. It's that monochrome purr, which reduces every lyric to an early morning murmur of “you stay in bed, I'll make the coffee” if you're not listening close. But emotional inadequacy, not true love, is his favorite lyrical topic, addressed at Xcel via “I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)” and an acoustic cover of Tom Petty's “Free Fallin'.” The friendly shuffle of “Who Says” masks the fact that it's about getting stoned alone in a dark room, while smooth-jazz ripples make “Moving On and Getting Over" an oddly soothing breakup song.
When Mayer wants emotional range, he mimics soul greats. Curtis Mayfield was the not-quite-achieved target of “Waiting for the World to Change,” the perceptive anthem of ineffectual liberal torment that closed the main set. But he got startlingly close to Marvin Gaye during the encore for “Still Feel Like Your Man,” a catalog of sweetly pathetic details like “I still keep your shampoo in the shower.” If Mayer ever wants to woo critics, all he has to do is record an album of the stylistic pastiches he's capable of with a load more of ironic distance than he's comfortable with.
As for Mayer's guitar work, I can say many complimentary things -- it's smart, economical, versatile, technically proficient -- but I can't say I didn't hear enough of it Saturday night. His trio set with Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino was sharp and efficient, whipping through an instrumental jam in the style of Elmore James, a take on Mayer's own “Vultures,” and Robert Johnson's “Crossroads,” the time-honored Cream riff most definitely included. But often Mayer plays like an ace session man who finally got to cut his own album, with solos habitually carrying over into one more chorus than necessary. Full disclosure: The other 12,999 people in the room disagreed. When I responded “maybe a little too much guitar?” to a “how do you like it so far?” from the fan in the seat next to me, she looked as though I'd said ice cream should be outlawed.
The “epilogue” was Mayer, alone at a tiny piano, performing “You're Gonna Live Forever in Me,” which sounds like the Eagles' “Desperado” rewritten as Randy Newman Oscar-bait. (You go get you that Pixar money, Johnny.) I love the hell out of this song. The musical style was adeptly recycled, the lyrical insights were unstupidly rephrased commonplaces. It's what this talented guy has to offer, and it's not nothing.
Critic's bias: I've mildly defended Mayer's pleasant adequacy since 2003, and I've enjoyed every one of his albums without ever returning to them too often. Email me a list of your favorite critically acclaimed singer-songwriters and I'll tell you which ones he's better than.
The crowd: Tell me ladies, how do you feel about this new bare-shouldered fashion trend they're forcing on you this summer?
Moving On and Getting Over
I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)
Covered in Rain
In Your Atmosphere
Free Fallin' (Tom Petty cover)
Neon Play Video
Crossroads (Robert Johnson cover)
Full band (reprise)
Waiting on the Day
Something Like Olivia
Waiting on the World to Change
Slow Dancing in a Burning Room
Still Feel Like Your Man
You're Gonna Live Forever in Me