August 6th was adult contemporary night here in Milwaukee as suburban couples and twenty somethings hopped in their SUVs to the Fiserv Forum to hear John Mayer. When I tell people I like John Mayer people are either surprised or shocked or just disgusted. It’s fine with me because I believe John Mayer is an extremely talented musician.
One thing you should know about Mayer is that he writes two kinds of songs:
- Extremely well crafted and melodic pop songs with an honest sentimentality
- Songs made up of chord progressions that can accommodate a nice soulful melody and a long extended guitar jam
I have nothing against guitar jamming. I grew up on 70s rock. I’ve consumed my fair share of Stevie Ray Vaughan. But as I sat in section 206 slogging through the maybe 5th or 6th guitar jam I realized that with Mayer there seems to be a sameness to it; it’s the same guitar jam over the same tempo and chords over and over again. But really it’s all he’s got. He’s not really a showman or much of a performer, he’s a musician through and through and if you want a sense of spectacle at all you’ve got to give in to big bended blues riffs and hammer-ons and the guitar face. He’s really good at it.
He opened with “Heartbreak Warfare” from his Battle Studies album and it was kind of perfect. He doesn’t say “hello.” No “good evening.” Just 1,2,3,4, go. The song is tight. The band is exceptional. The crowd is grooving. Hmm, I don’t smell marijuana. This is different. The closest we came to even a hint of the ganja was 10 or so songs later, when the middle to upper middle class audience seemed perfectly comfortable singing along with “Who says you can’t get stoned?”
That’s about as much rock and roll rebellion as you’re going to get at a Mayer show.
Mayer employs a large and dramatic video screen behind the band that plays like an edited version of the concert. Tight close-ups of band members and Mayer’s fingers blistering the fretboard keep everyone visually interested in what is generally a visually uninteresting thing. The entire presentation comes down to this:
This is a band. These are the songs. We will play them for you now.
And really it’s like that – like you’re watching an amazing band during rehearsals playing random songs from a vast catalog – as if there is no show or story trajectory. It’s like watching a movie without a plot; just a series of scenes that somehow work together. Still, Mayer’s best songs communicate quite well – the sentiment of his songs feel honest and universal. “I want to walk through the halls of my high school, I want to scream at the top of my lungs” feels real. And his musings on life, as in his song “In the Blood” resonate:
How much of my mother has my mother left in me?
How much of my love will be insane to some degree?
And what about this feeling that I'm never good enough?
Will it wash out in the water, or is it always in the blood?
He has a way with words and you’ve got to give him that. Mayer has found that magic formula where the generic gives way to honesty then transforms itself into a universal message. His voice is his own, and that’s kind of the holy grail for songwriters. Especially when you’ve achieved the level of fame Mayer has. The Forum was damn near sold out.
Speaking of his fame, he alludes to it in his introduction of “Your Body Is A Wonderland” where he acknowledges the corniness of it while unabashedly owning the song. He speaks of being heckled by drunk guys about the song, yet admits that if you write a song as ubiquitous as this one, the drunk heckling is worth it. He sings the song with conviction, and, corny or not, the crowd can’t get enough of it. I wondered to myself how many people actually thought during the song, “You’re damn right my body is a wonderland!”
During the show Mayer also spoke of an extended period of time when he was spending a lot of time in the studio and lost a bit of himself. He was working on tracks with beats and layers for the kids, he said. He came in one day and realized all he needed was this “Space age device” pointing to the acoustic guitar he had strapped on his body. It was a cute, and quite resonant moment. The magic of Mayer is in his command of song craft and ability to convey a story, just him and his guitar. It was in that moment that he says he wrote “I Guess I Just Feel Like” and the lyrics make a ton more sense knowing how it came about:
I guess I just feel like
To make it on through
I guess I just feel like
I'm the same way, too
It was one of the highlights of the show, a nice intimate moment – or at least as intimate as it could be from where I was sitting in the upper deck.
Mayer plays for about three hours, with two sets and an intermission, without an opener. The intermission is nice. It’s like taking a breather from a really easy workout. It’s Mayer’s way of saying grab a beer, use the rest room, and talk amongst yourselves about the songs you hope I play in the second set that I almost certainly won’t.
But I’m not bitter. Mayer did regrettably avoid the entire Heavier Things album. Clarity. Bigger Than My Body. New Deep. Daughters. All some of his best work was left on the table. Maybe he’s tired of playing those songs. Or maybe he just doesn’t care. I left the show, after the last few notes of “New Light” which he played after an extended version of “Gravity” (another long jam!). I was nonplussed, slightly confused as to what I just witnessed. Was that a show? Was that a Spotify playlist? Was this all an elaborate ploy to get us to listen to “Waiting On The World to Change?” I don’t know.
John Mayer was the first of a kind in a way – the modern male singer songwriter who wears his heart on his sleeve and his hair in varying degrees of unkemptness. But Tuesday his hair was perfectly coiffed, like his songs. Maybe a little too perfect, which is okay. Frankly, all the look- and sound-alikes that came after him didn’t quite reach the heights that Mayer has, and that says a lot.
But most of the time when you see a concert your vision of that artist gets elevated; you leave liking them more. But this show made me realize that I like John Mayer, but I don’t love John Mayer. I left feeling the same way I did as when I walked in.