John Mayer Needs to Stop Wearing Cowboy Hats

John Mayer – Paradise Valley

I like John Mayer’s music.  It took me a long time, but I really took a shine to it once I gave Where The Light Is an honest listen.  His pop icon status during his Room For Squares years made me quite the cynic.  Throughout that time, I had absolutely no idea that the guy is a virtuoso on a Strat.  I knew he was over-confident, and every word out of his head is stupider than the last, and that only compounded my distaste.

But then I heard a friend cover “Who Did You Think I Was,” and I was inspired to give Mayer’s catalog another chance.  The song is one of the John Mayer Trio‘s biggest, and for good reason.  Squirrely hammer-ons give the song’s main riff some sauntering confidence unheard in other pop music.  Steve Jordan’s aggressive, yet classic drumming drives the track with a perforated backbeat.  Pino Palladino on bass?  It goes without say.  The bassline crawls about the room, undulating but never out of control, like a pot of water at a rolling boil.

John Mayer Trio’s album, Try!, has some real gems on it.  With “Out of My Mind,” a tremendous slow blues, and a grooving rendition of Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” the album is the first appearance of Mayer’s standards, “Vultures,” and “Gravity.”  Damn, “Another Kind of Green.” (Spotify link) Just give it a spin.

But “Gravity” really comes into its own on Mayer’s monumental Where The Light Is.  The concert was a one-off triptych, a multi-act show that showcased three distinct facets of Mayer’s talent.  A tender acoustic set opens the concert.  Mayer’s ridiculous fingerstyle talents amaze on “Neon,” and “Stop This Train.”  If you ask me, the cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” while a nice rendition, is a bit cheezy for my likes.  But I digress.

Then the real deal happens.  The John Mayer Trio takes the middle set, dressed in sharp black suits and skinny ties.  Start to finish, their set is absolutely incendiary.  Listen to their cover of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.” I’m serious, listen to it. He’s playing that verse and singing at the same time!  Even Hendrix slowed that whole thing down a bit.  “Come When I Call,” shows a less fuzzed-out side of the Trio, Mayer’s neck pickup draping super-sweet lead tones about the Nokia Theatre.  “Out Of My Mind,” gives me chills with every listen, thanks in large part to a perfectly feedbacked note in Mayer’s solo that rings out for a robust 10 seconds.  Even Mayer shook his head in amazement when he played it.  The only thing that kind of irks me is the unrelatable speech about love that Mayer babbles throughout the bridge of Hendrix’s Bold As Love.  Like I said before, everything this guy says needs an editor.  Talented as hell; not much of a philosopher, though.

After the Trio’s set, John Mayer graces the stage with his usual backing band to play his pop standards.  Opening with the crowd-pleaser, “Waiting on the World to Change,” this set is positively littered with guitar changes.  That’s one of the things that amazes me about this concert.  Every track has a different guitar! I understand that there are technical needs for this.  Different songs are in different tunings, and I know very well that each guitar is a different tool, with its own sound and own personality. If I was John Mayer, yeah I’d have a different guitar for every song, too. That said, goddamn this guy has a lot of guitars.  Beautiful Stratocasters not to mention a Monterey Pop Strat, and his custom-built “Black One,” let alone more Martin acoustics than I can differentiate. He must travel with at least 25 guitars.  That’s a conservative estimate.

The crown jewel of the set is “Gravity.”  The climax to the live track’s guitar solo is ethereal.  Halfway through the solo, the drummer breaks open the vibe, splashing his crash cymbal to give the track a little more simmer.  Then Mayer bends a chromatic walk up his Strat’s neck, and erupts in a positively ghostly note I swore I had never heard before this solo.  It’s the sound of a guitar weeping, truly. After this, Mayer furiously slides triads past the twelfth fret and descends down the neck to join the rest of the band.  The solo leaves the audience, myself included, clutching for a cigarette.

Where The Light Is is an exercise in excellence.  Borne of the same creative vein which sprouted Continuum, it is a note-for-note masterpiece.  It made me delve deeper into his back catalog.  I listened to “My Stupid Mouth,” and “Why Georgia.” I grew accustomed, and I liked it.

Battle Studies came and went for me.  The high points of the album were “Assassin,” and a competent interpretation of “Crossroads,” though it took a little growing on me.  I’m not asking for a Continuum 2, as so many are, but Battle Studies felt a bit limp to me.  It lacked a pulse.  While the album has substance the form of layered instrumentals, it has a very subdued vibe throughout.  A talented work, but I wanted something else out of it other than what Mayer had intended.

It’s the same situation with Born & Raised.  Subdued, a little more mellow.  While you listen, you take a deep breath and remind yourself that beauty is in the details.  That said, my opinion is that the mellowness is overstaying its welcome.  Is it just me, or is “Shadow Days” the same song as “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” and “In Repair?” There’s a very distinct sound that all three of the tracks share, and I wonder if we’re kind of just following through the motions.

Gotta give it to him, he’s got a good sense of humor.

“Paper Doll,” the first single off Paradise Valley makes me feel that this new album will be strikingly similar to Born & Raised.  A spiritual successor, perhaps.  It is only a year after the release of Born & Raised, so these songs are a peek into the same window of Mayer’s life. I’m quite alright with him exploring this cowboy phase, releasing tracks that sound like he draped leather chaps over B-sides off Room For Squares.  John, just know that the next time you want to plug your black Strat into a cranked-out Blues Reverb, we’re all listening.

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