For more than a decade, John Mayer has been straddling a fine line, a guitar god packaged like a pop star, performing music that only touches on his abilities as an instrumentalist. Mayer and his band stopped in Oklahoma City last night on his 2013 winter tour, delivering a two hour performance at the Chesapeake Energy Arena that found him dialing back his formerly outspoken personality and letting his music do the talking — largely working in his favor — playing music from every album in his discography with an emphasis on his two latest records, 2012’s Born and Raised and this year’s Paradise Valley.
Support act Phillip Phillips (yes, the American Idol-alumni) did a decent job, although his music sounds like a mix between Dave Matthews Band and a watered-down Mumford and Sons. Phillips is charming and has stage presence, but there is just nothing distinctive or really memorable about his music. Save for an interesting cover of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, Phillips’ set was pleasant but not great, the kind of innocuous music primed for radio. What would you expect from an American Idol winner?
John Mayer came on at 8:15, kicking off with Queen of California from last year’s Born and Raised LP. That record found Mayer shifting gears a bit and going in the direction of Americana, but it mostly suits his voice and his guitar style. As the song continued on, Mayer’s stage opened up, his band flanked by set pieces that looked like mountains and plateaus while a giant screen projected hundreds of sparkling stars (and the occasional meteor). It was a simple yet effective stage set up, and worked well with the camp-song vibe of Queen of California.
I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You) was the first of several tracks from Mayer’s real breakthrough LP Continuum, and allowed Mayer his first real solo opportunity of the evening. As anyone who has ever witnessed Mayer play live can confirm, he is the master of weird guitar-playing faces, and it almost seems as though every note, lick and chord he plays must be accentuated by a tongue, side-mouth or eye roll. It’s entertaining to watch him play, but even better is the sound the man produces from whatever guitar he’s got attached to him at any given time. He really does show himself as a six-stringed master, and while extended solos generally have the tendency to sound self-indulgent and overwrought, that isn’t a problem for Mayer’s playing.
Other Continuum tracks included Waiting on the World to Change (preceded by a bass and drum jam), a gorgeous Stop This Train and fan-favorite Slow Dancing in a Burning Room. All night long people yelled out requests for Gravity, which Mayer laughed about. He did eventually get to the track, which remains one of the strongest in his repertoire, latching it on to the end of his main set just before the encore. For those in the crowd who had been crying for the song all evening, it was most certainly worth the wait.
Mayer reached back to his debut LP Room for Squares only once, for an incredibly well-received take on his first-ever single No Such Thing. It became quite the crowd sing-along, and while it would have been nice to see Neon or even Why Georgia make an appearance, the crowd seemed happy enough with No Such Thing.
Mayer remained quiet for most of the evening, letting his lyrics and music do most of the heavy lifting. He did thank the crowd profusely for spending part of the Thanksgiving weekend with him, and all-in-all seemed very humble and happy to still be performing for a nearly sold out arena. He did take time to introduce If I Ever Get Around to Living with a personal anecdote about always making plans to start in the future instead of with any sense of immediacy, before letting the crowd know that perhaps we should all just live in the moment as it doesn’t seem all that bad. The performance of If I Ever Get Around to Living was pretty impressive, a four-part song finding Mayer switching back and forth between acoustic and electric guitars before busting out a lengthy solo on the electric strapped behind his back. He may be a bit more reserved when talking, but his playing is as unleashed as ever.
Mayer led into Wildfire (one of the standouts from Paradise Valley) with a brief lick from Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime, cracking a joke about there being maybe 12 people in the audience who had any idea who Mungo was. The lick actually fit really well with the context of Wildfire, so much so that Mayer touched on it again during the song’s solo. The song found Mayer heading straight into Southern rock territory, but again the style really seems to work with both his playing and his voice.
Mayer played two full covers during his set, including a great take on Eric Clapton’s Lay Down Sally and a less-predictable cover of Citizen Cope’s Sideways. Both were solid for a number of reasons, but Sideways really allowed Mayer and his band ample time to showcase their abilities as instrumentalists and was a highlight of the later part of the set.
A quick two-song encore followed the main set, kicking off with a great version of Vultures. One of the bluesiest songs in his discography, the track featured some great interplay between Mayer and his backing vocalists while also giving Mayer a chance for his best solo work of the entire evening, which is saying a lot given the number of great solos he busted out during the two hour show. Vultures gave way to the pensive Dear Marie, Mayer switching back to his trusty acoustic guitar for one final track. It sounded like the evening was going to end on a somewhat downtrodden note, but at the end of the track things opened up and turned into one final singalong to send the crowd home. Not a bad way to end a show at all.
John Mayer has become harder to categorize as the years have gone on, but it is difficult for even the hardiest of haters to deny his talents as an instrumentalist. His voice and musical styles will appeal to different types of people, but Mayer has made his dual role as a pop icon and blues demon seem to work in his favor. There’s no telling what direction his next studio album is going to take, but as long as the stage show remains this solid I’ll be along for the ride.
John Mayer setlist:
Queen of California, Lay Down Sally (Eric Clapton), I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You), Born and Raised, No Such Thing, Who Says, Waiting on the Day, Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, Stop This Train / Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey, Wildfire, If I Ever Get Around to Living, Waiting on the World to Change, Speak for Me, Something Like Olivia, Sideways (Citizen Cope), Gravity, Vultures, Dear Marie
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