Ladies and gentlemen, the John Mayer of old is back. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you probably know why I say this. Either way, I’ll start (briefly) from the beginning anyway. Mr. Mayer & I go way back: I was first introduced to his music just before his breakthrough hit “No Such Thing” exploded (circa Inside Wants Out, 2001-ish), and was immediately hooked. His fame continued to grow over the years. I didn’t notice at first, but somehow the seemingly almost shy, sweet, clever lyricist with an unusual tone and stellar guitar skills had become unrecognizable. He seemed to have bought into his own celebrity, and even if I’d have wanted to, I couldn’t have defended friends who insisted he’d become the ultimate “douche.” It didn’t keep me from listening, but it made me sad nonetheless. And then, miraculously, in 2010, he was somehow alerted to this drastic change in himself. Abruptly quitting Twitter, John took a hiatus to get back to himself. Then he lost his voice, which threatened the future of his career, though in the end it finally healed. Last year finally brought us the delicious folk/country-rock Born and Raised, and Wednesday ended my unintentional John Mayer hiatus as I finally had the chance to see him live for the first time in the better part of a decade, at Wheatland’s Sleep Train Amphitheatre, with recent American Idol winner Phillip Phillips in support.
I admit, I was skeptical. I’d only managed to see him once in the past, despite having been a fan for so many years. Though I had never loved his music any less, I wasn’t sure what to expect of John in person. I followed him on Twitter back in the days of infamy, and it was near impossible to avoid hearing about his tabloid antics. But still I hoped that the Mr. Mayer I once fell for might again show his face. Let’s call my energy before this show “cautiously optimistic.” As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about: John would blow me away with the humble, joyous spirit I’d nearly given up on…
The night began before the sun went down, as is to be expected in the summer at an open-air amphitheatre. Phillip Phillips walked onstage in an unpretentious t-shirt and jeans ensemble, waved to those who screamed for him, and picked up his guitar. I have to say, I don’t much enjoy American Idol, and I don’t regularly watch it. But because it’s given us those truly rare gems like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (even if you don’t enjoy their styles of music, their talent is irrefutable), I try to keep my finger on its pulse in case another great one comes down the pike. And now I’m glad I have, as they’ve given me the best-yet winner in Phillip. This kid has it. You know what I mean, right? That je ne sais quos that’s so hard to put your finger on besides to describe someone’s talent (vocal and instrumental) as well as presence. In Phillips specifically, it’s also his artistry: no matter how many “themes” the Idol people tried to throw at him, he stayed true to himself all the way through and just did what he does, which is often turning a well-known song on its end, re-working it entirely. (As was the case in his audition, a terrific cover rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”)
His set began with “Get Up Get Down,” and immediately I was drawn into the sense of joy with which he plays. It’s immediately apparent that Phillip has been a Dave Matthews fan for a good many years, but if I’m being honest, I prefer his music to that of his idol’s. Next up was “Hold On,” followed by current single “Gone Gone Gone” (from his debut album The World From the Side of the Moon), and then a song I couldn’t recognize before “Man on the Moon,” which led to a little jam session with Phillips on his acoustic guitar and his guitar player on the electric. “Thank you!” Phillip said when the song wrapped. “I hope you’re having a good time with us so far!” The next song began with a brief introduction on the keys, a sexy saxophone solo, and eventually became “Take Me Away.” As I jammed along from my seat, I was sad to see so many empty chairs throughout the amphitheatre – sadly, it seems people don’t yet know that they should not miss this kid. They will.
When the audio crackled unexpectedly, Phillip laughed and said it sounded like “thunder’s coming in” before introducing the members of his band, again telling the crowd he hoped “you’re having fun!” He went on to point out that he had some merch and his album for sale, saying “check it out maybe you’ll like it thank you” (just like that: all in one breath), to which the crowd laughed. Obviously, he’s been coached to say that, and he’d rather just play. Next came the highlight of Phillips’ set: one of those brilliant covers that I’ve come to view as synonymous with his music, this time his cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which included a phenomenal guitar solo. It was around this time that I first noticed the number of middle-aged women screaming at him. As Phillip thanked the crowd one last time, he noted his appreciation of those in the front and those on the lawn, concluding that he hoped “you had a good time with us!” He wrapped up the set with his first single “Home,” during which a tipsy middle-aged crowd sitting near me got up and started dancing, trying wholeheartedly to get everyone else in our section to join them. Why wait till the last song, though? Perhaps it’s the only one they recognize. If so, I hope it’s not the case for long. This kid is going places. Just like I knew it with John Mayer once upon a time, I believe it about Phillip Phillips, too.
When John’s set began, a giant screen appeared full of night sky with stars and mountains, and the pretty boy guitarist materialized with a scarf tied around his head a la Hendrix, opening the show appropriately with “Queen of California,” followed by “Waiting on the World to Change” and then his newest single, “Paper Doll” (from the forthcoming Paradise Valley). After “Vultures,” Mayer paused to give his fellow musicians (four guitars, including his own and that of the fantastic Zane Carney, a drummer, keyboard player, and two back-up vocalists) props before “The Heart of Life.” Next came the first cover of his set, Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” followed up by the beautifully sad “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” At this point, I’d begun to wonder why Mayer has been criticized lately for “abandoning” the blues. I know his music has evolved, but clearly he’s not only still capable of playing bluesy goodness, but still continues to do so on tour. This song has always been gut-wrenching, but was especially amazing live that night. Honestly, I think John is easily one of the best lyricists of my generation, and I noticed that if he wasn’t singing, he didn’t have much to say otherwise. (Though that wouldn’t be true all night.) At any rate… damn, can he play! For someone who not long ago lost his voice, he sounds as good as he always did, much to my relief.
Finally, he spoke: “thank you guys very much!” (A phrase he’d repeat over and over all night, as it turned out.) The screen on stage went black as John began a brief solo set on stage, starting with “Stop this Train,” and then another cover, this time Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” and then something I never thought I’d hear him play live again: “Your Body is a Wonderland.” Because it was arguably his biggest commercial success, and his poppiest, most bubble-gum, romantic song, I sort of thought it was a song he’d be happy to break away from. I certainly could have lived without it, but I’m happy to say he proved me wrong; it was fun to journey back with him to such a bright spot in his career, and to see that he’s not “too good” to relive older career highlights. The song included a great acoustic guitar breakdown, and there again I noticed that there was quite a lot of “woo”-ing going on around me. “Thank you guys very much!” He said again, and that was when I made up my mind: he’s the John I wanted to be friends with the first time I heard “No Such Thing.” I don’t know how, but he’s completely gotten back in touch with who he was as a person, and seems to be truly grateful. He’s all about the music and the fans, just as I’d like him to be. I haven’t seen this side of him in so long, I really wasn’t sure it still existed. Welcome back, John!
When the screen and its mountains returned, so did the band (and the electric guitars). The next song, John explained, was written in the studio. He has this habit, he explained, of “fidgeting” on his guitar, and he played something that he liked, quickly suggesting, “track that, track that!” and then layering other cool little ditties on top of it. Ultimately, though, he didn’t expect anything to come of it, until a video of that studio session appeared online. Though it wasn’t a real song, its appearance online pushed him to finish the song, which ended up happening basically in one night. He explained that it was about the “spirit of being outdoors, bombarded by little bugs,” and then interrupted himself, saying “what if I wasn’t really telling a story, but just gave myself lots of chances to start it? Yeah, it went like this… Anyway, it went like this…” While the screen changed to a scene of sunrise, he finally began the new song, “Wildfire,” which truly does evoke the spirit of summer.
Again thanking the audience, John said that he felt like telling stories about his songs, adding that it was the “rich and storied history behind” his songs. He went on to talk about the guitar he was currently playing on and how he’d borrowed it, and been charged a lot for it because the guy “knew that I was John Mayer,” adding that we shouldn’t feel bad for him, “it’s really alright. I’m gonna be fine.” When he tripped over his story, he admitted that the last sentence was one he “wished he could start over,” and eventually revealed that the guitar in question was a 1961 SG Les Paul, as made famous by George Harrison. “I wish Mayer would talk about his guitars,” he said, as though reading a hypothetical fan’s thoughts. “I cater to each of you, if you keep coming to the shows for a hundred years.” When he introduced the next song (“Edge of Desire”), he noted that it was from his Battle Studies record as the screen changed to full-blown daylight in the desert. Amid more “woo”-ing and whistling, the next song began with a driving drum-beat and the audience enthusiastically clapping along. “This is where we grab ahold of you and don’t let go for the rest of the show!” Mayer promised, as rose petals began to float on the wind on the screen’s desert scene. The song was “Half of My Heart.”
While John put on his harmonica holder for the next song and the screen scene changed to a totally different slideshow, I shook my head, marveling at his many talents. After “Born and Raised” came another “thank you very much,” followed this time by a question: “having a good time so far? Can we jam out a little bit?” He went on to scat something about how before you know it, we’d be seeing the back to school commercials with kids jumping in blue jeans, lockers flying open, and coupons. Honestly, I didn’t totally follow it, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying it. The screen scene changed to a desert full of cacti, with the graphics resembling those of a video game. Mid-scat, John started singing something about being “young & cool,” including the line “things were young and you were cool,” and eventually stopped in the middle to swear an oath to the crowd: “I will write a song called ‘Young and Cool!'” He promised, calling it a “solemn oath,” and I’ll be curious to see what, if anything, comes of it. Though he began “Who Says” next, he went back to a little of his “young and cool” scat in its chorus, seamlessly fusing the two as though he’s been doing it forever. The cacti on the screen began to flower, and I couldn’t decide if it looked like a video game or a trip in the desert. When he sang “it’s been a long night in Sac town,” the crowd screamed, predictably. I, on the other hand, laughed because I knew what came next: “but then again, I don’t remember you.” I also noticed that (I think) I heard him say “it’s been a long time since 32″ – the original lyrics is 22, and these are the kind of nuances that I enjoy about a live show.
“If I Ever Get Around to Living” came next, with the screen returning to the desert, this time amid a snowstorm. “Check this out,” John said, pausing to jam again with the band as he sat for a minute near the drums. During the song’s breakdown, he strutted out to one side of the stage, and the scatting around the “when you gonna wise up, boy?” part of the song was flat-out sexy falsetto. In my notes: hot. There isn’t much more that needs to be said, and if you saw it, you understand. “Zane Carney on lead guitar, everybody!” John stopped to give props, adding, “thanks for comin’, stayin’, singing along to old ones, and dancing along to the new ones! This is called ‘The Age of Worry.'” The screen, still the desert shot, went black & white, featuring the lyrics to the song in a bright blue font. “Thank you guys so very, very much for coming out. For wanting to buy a ticket. You guys are the reason I’m able to keep playing whatever it is I want to play, regardless of whatever’s on the various charts,” Mayer gushed, going on to thank everyone “all the way to the back of the lawn,” and admitting that he “couldn’t do it without the band,” who he went on to introduce to much (deserved) applause. “Please make as much noise as you can for Phillip Phillips, who decided to be on this tour!” I listened critically, and decided that the man’s thanks seemed truly heartfelt. For a guy written off by many as a a “douchebag,” he seems now to have done the impossible: a complete 180. Now he’s just a cool guy who enjoys that he gets to play his music for people who like listening to it. I don’t know what changed, or how he got himself back, but I applaud and respect him for it.
The last song of the set was my personal favorite from Born and Raised, “A Face to Call Home,” which featured graphics showing a house building itself in the desert, alive with butterflies in the garden. As the song came to a close, it changed to a scene of hanging naked lightbulbs and then what appeared to be a burning bush. John and the band left the stage, and the crowd went insane, as though they still really believe that the encore is determined only by their enthusiasm. When Mayer came back to the stage, they predictably went apeshit. Back on went the harmonica, back came the desert scene’s night sky for “A Fool to Love You,” into “Something like Olivia,” and then the screen went to what looked like a patriotic flying carpet for a little jam, and then to scenes of America from the highway for the night’s final cover: “Goin’ Down the Road (Feeling Bad),” as made popular by Woody Guthrie and the Grateful Dead, followed by an even longer jam. “See you again soon, I hope,” Mayer concluded with a final, “thank you, we love you. Thank you!” And just like that, it was over.
All in all, I was unexpectedly blown away by this show. Admittedly, my expectations were low for the evening. While these are two musicians I really like, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Phillips (having never seen him live before). And John, well…I hoped he’d be enjoyable, but I sort of fell for his music all over again that night, and I’m inspired by his newfound determination to live like a human being, and I applaud him for both. Good on you, John. I look forward to seeing you on the next tour, and now I know better than to let another decade slip by without coming back.
Note: For those who want to experience the wonderful Born and Raised Tour, about which you’ve just read, you haven’t missed your chance in the Bay Area! John & Phillip play Shoreline Amphitheatre tonight! If it isn’t sold out, get a ticket, and enjoy! Tell the boys hi for me!