ohn Mayer represents the best of the new mainstream pop movement. Whereas mainstream pop of recent years has been about young, beautiful puppets and their crack team of writer-producer-manager-puppeteers—the Makin’ the Backstreet Britney Mouse Club—new mainstream pop has introduced actual talent, albeit young and beautiful talent: Michelle Branch, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, and the like. And John Mayer is the cream of that crop, a deserving artist beyond his category, beyond his fresh-faced looks. Mayer is a unique voice, a thoughtful lyricist, a studied guitarist, and above all, an excellent songwriter. All on his own, no strings attached. All the more disappointing that live, as displayed at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion, Mayer simply fails to deliver an entirely compelling show.
At ten past 9:00 p.m., Mayer walked onto the stage alone, acoustic guitar in hand. To the capacity crowd of mostly teenage girls (audience-wise, a Mayer show appears no different than a Britney extravaganza) his entrance must have been a novel sight. A show opener with no explosions, no pre-recorded tracks, and no dancing—in fact, Mayer chose to sit. With a low-key smile he performed “Love Soon” from his newest EP, Inside Wants Out. (Mayer’s 2001 major label debut, the excellent Room for Squares, has been so successful that his label decided to distribute his pre-deal, 1999 independently released EP. That, and his young, Napster-friendly audience had already begun sharing the “unreleased” songs online.) His solo opener was confident and engaging, an intimate start to the big-venue show.
With his band already in place on stage, Mayer stood to quickly launch into a series of numbers from Room For Squares. The audience of screaming girls reacted to his every step, smirk, and wink. Every word was reinforced in unison by the capacity crowd. During “Why Georgia”, Mayer confidently backed off from the mic to allow the audience to sing the bridge in his stead. (The bridge! Not the chorus, not the hook the bridge.) And every word was there. Mayer’s aware that his young, loyal fans eat up his lyrics. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Chicago singers,” he acknowledged.
Mayer’s sound started to wear thin during his breakthrough hit, “No Such Thing”, only the third song of the night (admirably not saved as an obvious encore). Performing the mega-hit should have been a groundswell moment in his show. It wasn’t. For all the charisma and energy that Mayer displayed, his band looked and sounded as if they were reading charts. The band—hidden in the shadows of Mayer’s blaring spotlight—was simply uninspiring. Competent, not compelling. And they weighted down Mayer’s efforts to take the music higher. The band also lacked one glaring, and crucial, element of pop performance: back-up singing. Mayer’s songs, steeped in harmony on-album, were delivered without in concert. Mayer bore the entire vocal burden on his own shoulders. And although his voice is impressive—delivering beautiful falsetto leads and “going for it” at all times—when he missed, it was all the more obvious. The extra harmonic polish that makes his recorded music so lush and compelling was lacking here. Fine songs such as “Back to You”, “My Stupid Mouth”, “3x5”, and “Love Song For No One”, suffered live. Mayer’s pop didn’t quite pop.
Mayer switched regularly between acoustic and electric guitar throughout the night. Although you’d never know it from his albums, Mayer is a blistering blues guitarist. Really. In interviews he often cites deceased guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan as a main influence. That nod always struck me as ridiculous given Mayer’s utterly bluesless album. But live, Mayer injects blues-driven electric guitar solos at every possible turn. “Back to You” and “City Love” were delivered replete with intro-jams, mid-song solos, and outro-noodlings. Unfortunately, much of it was tedious. Although Mayer’s electric leads were interesting in and of themselves (if not downright surprising), his tunes were recorded without heavy electric guitar for good reason—such guitar is unnecessary for his brand of concise pop. And the intro jams, which became standard before each song, often ended in transitions that were plain awkward.
John Mayer is suffering an obvious growing pain: He’s a frustrated blues guitarist. Clearly skilled and capable of performing at any of Chicago’s cool, smoky South Side blues bars, Mayer’s multi-talents, good looks, and catchy songs have “trapped” him within converted sports halls, performing before legions of teenage girls. Instead of hitting Buddy Guy’s on his pass through Chicago, Mayer finds himself at the UIC Pavilion—probably not what he imagined when dreaming of becoming the next Stevie Ray. In that context, his errors are understandable. Mayer attempts to front a band similar to Vaughan or other guitar heroes: spare, competent, unflashy sidemen; no back-up vocalists; all attention on center stage. Perhaps an admirable misstep, but Mayer’s show and music suffer for it. Instead of performing inspiring, uplifting live versions of his songs, he delivers inappropriate, unappreciated guitar jams and lackluster pop. The young Mayer needs to focus on one style. I sincerely hope he nurtures his sizeable songwriting talents and grows beyond his calling to blues. (Even the Beatles had to outgrow the Chuck Berry classics they re-recorded in their early days.)
The moment everyone had waited for, “Your Body Is a Wonderland”, an undeniably catchy, intimate, and popular acoustic confessional, was almost hijacked by Mayer’s ill-conceived introduction. Mayer explained the song’s inspiration: “[This is about] when you girls blow a guy’s mind and take your clothes off. Oh! Oh!” At a blues bar, Mayer’s blatantly sexual banter would have earned him (and the fellas in the band) a round of shots. In front of his audience of mostly adolescent girls, Mayer was rewarded with a round of uncomfortable giggles. The tension and awkwardness were palpable. Fortunately, all was healed by his fine performance, as the giggling was substituted with young voices singing in unison. And that’s probably Mayer’s greatest frustration. Despite his sophistication, despite his concentrated study of the blues masters, despite his abundant skills, John Mayer has become a mainstream pop star—a young man who would be more appropriate censoring his adult message for the sake of kids; an edgy musician who would be better suited with a slicker band. (When introducing a new song, “Something’s Missing”, Mayer joked, “If you have to pee, now is the time.” And people exited in droves! His fans are simply too young to understand his sarcasm.) Unfortunately, Mayer is cursed with extraordinary pop sensibility in a time when mainstream pop is marketed to kids.
Mayer’s initial encore was reminiscent of his first song that night: He stood alone on stage, acoustic guitar in hand. Choosing a microphone off to stage-right as opposed to center-stage, Mayer accompanied himself on guitar as he sang “Comfortable”, from his 1999 independent release. The song was probably left off his major label debut for being too atypical, too complex, even too sincere. (How often do pop songs make heartfelt reference to jazzers John Coltrane and Miles Davis?) And in his stirring rendition, just solo voice and guitar, Mayer truly shined. He performed with his eyes closed, not quite comfortable in his role as pop star, not quite comfortable before his young crowd, not quite comfortable in a sterile arena, alone at stage-right singing “Comfortable”, a song not quite comfortable for his major label debut. Mayer’s position off center-stage seemed appropriate: The rising star requires experience to become centered. Fortunately, all of Mayer’s inconsistencies can be smoothed over in time. But until then, enduring his growing pains is mostly worthwhile, and in rare instances such as his encore solo, remarkable.