Concert Review

John Mayer Defied Gravity in Downtown Phoenix

John Mayer at Talking Stick Resort Arena on August 1, 2017.
John Mayer at Talking Stick Resort Arena on August 1, 2017. Kelsee Becker
Late in his Tuesday night show at Talking Stick Resort Arena, guitarist John Mayer turned to metaphor to describe the buoyancy and uplift he was feeling. Sporting a muted tie-dye Supreme shirt and Louis Vuitton Harlem boots, which somehow felt like a metaphor itself, Mayer said the concert reminded him of being in grade school, with the audience hoisting up a big quilt parachute-style so “everyone can hang out underneath.”

You can accuse John Mayer of lots of things: of being terrifically insensitive (even after seven years, his infamous 2010 Playboy interview hovers like an ugly cloud); of being kind of gross (“Don’t you think I was too young,” Taylor Swift sings allegedly about him in “Dear John”); of being sonically vanilla (“Everything that Jerry Garcia ever talked about or stood for – John Mayer is the antithesis,” former Black Crowe Chris Robinson told Howard Stern regarding Mayer’s appointment as guitarist in Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann’s Dead and Company). But after Tuesday night’s show, I won’t accuse him of being insincere.

Mayer’s always aimed for profundity. “I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world / just a lie you’ve got to rise above,” he sang all the way back in 2001, when his breakthrough Room For Squares LP was released. I still don’t know what he means by that — though I suspect if R.E.M. sang the same line I’d nod along in solemn awareness — but in 2017, Mayer’s hit the overdrive pedal when it comes to grand statements. His latest album’s titled The Search For Everything, and his current road show is divided into four “chapters,” each designed to showcase the different sides of John (full band, acoustic, trio format).

There were set changes — at one point, the stage was made up to look like a Japanese flower garden, complete with a wooden bridge. There was an encore, too. And then an “epilogue” that found Mayer playing “Friend of the Devil” alone at the piano. (You knew it was an epilogue because the screen announced it as an “epilogue.”) Then we listened to the Grateful Dead’s transcendent “Ripple” in its entirety with an image of Jerry Garcia on the screen, a nice touch, as it would’ve been Jerry’s 75th birthday. The show was designed to broadcast a signal of awe, or at least aww: “Seventeen years later,” Mayer remarked on his career between songs, “I feel every molecule of it.”

These are the kind of statements Mayer excels at, the kind that toe the line between “that’s deep, man” stonerisms and genuinely awestruck wonder. Take “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” which opened the acoustic portion of the evening. It’s an easy song to think of as silly (it is that), but even if you’d never whisper “your body is a wonderland” to another human being in a moment of passion, for fear they’d ask you to leave the room, you have felt like that before. You’ve felt the idea of  “Your Body Is A Wonderland,” that vulnerable and naked awareness of another person pressed close to you. You’ve been aware of that feeling, been baffled by it, unable to comprehend exactly how to proceed but astonished anything like this could ever happen in the first place.

That’s where John Mayer songs live — in that liminal space between surprise and confusion. On “Stop This Train,” Mayer sang about feeling the need to hit pause on the hectic pace of life, only to have a talk with his father reveal to him that living is its own reward. “Once in a while, when it's good / It'll feel like it should” is not a complex set of lyrics, but they do ring true. The audience swooned as the song wrapped, with Mayer’s invocation that he’ll never “stop this train” — because one day the train’s going to break down on its own and none of us have any say in it.

Have I mentioned that John Mayer plays guitar? He plays a lot of guitar, juggling a series of acoustics, a 12-string dobro, some Stratocasters, and Paul Reed Smiths. While his bandmates in Dead & Company cut their teeth listening to Blind Willie McTell and Charley Patton, excavating ancient jug band rituals and arcane, elemental American music from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Mayer’s blues foundations are the thoroughly popified grooves of ‘80s Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and Buddy Guy. He shreds consistently, like a YouTuber showing off his mastery of licks, stepping frequently on an envelope filter to give his guitar that froggy, wonderfully wonky Garcia-esque touch. He makes faces, mouthing along wordlessly to his solos, turning to his seven-piece band to signal “stay on this groove, I need to go off.” They oblige.

As does the audience, most of the time anyway. They lost it for the fiery scales of “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and “Helpless,” but the third set, which featured Mayer alone with neo-soul legend and current Who bassist Pino Palladino (D'Angelo's Voodoo, Common's Like Water For Chocolate, Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun) and drummer Steve Jordan (who’s worked with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Keith Richards to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) seemed to lose some of the crowd. Reconfiguring the format of Mayer’s 2005 live album Try!, the trio’s Hendrix-style barrage hooked the hardcore — and revealed Mayer’s natural inclination toward rock/funk/blues histrionics — but by the end the trio’s brief set, which was loud, aggressive, and bonkers, a lot of folks had sat down, waiting for a politer turn from John and Co.

The final set delivered it, placing Mayer’s blues explorations in a more familiar, lush context. He still let long, loping guitar excursions close out his biggest hits, “Waiting on the World To Change” and the full-band closer “Gravity,” in which Mayer commands gravity to “stay the hell away from me.” It’s another one of those goofy lines when you read it on paper — a futile gesture against the forces of nature rendered awkwardly. But still, it's a set of words applied to an ineffable feeling, a desire we all share to be exempted from the things that hold us down. No matter how strained or clumsy, I get it. It translates. Mayer just wants to float, like that parachuting blanket, above the ground, weightless for a couple of hours.

click to enlarge
John Mayer at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
Kelsee Becker
Set List:
Chapter One (Full Band)

1. "Moving On and Getting Over"
2. "Clarity"
3. "Helpless"
4. "Rosie"
5. "Who Says"

Chapter Two (Acoustic)

6. "Your Body Is A Wonderland"
7. "Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967"
8. "Free Fallin'" (Tom Petty)

Chapter Three (Trio)

9. "Who Did You Think I Was"
10. "Vultures"
11. "Every Day I Have The Blues" (Traditional)

Chapter Four (Full Band — Reprise)

12. "In The Blood"
13. "Stop This Train"
14. "Edge of Desire"
15. "The Beautiful Ones" (Prince, lead vocals by David Ryan Harris) -> "Slow Dancing In A Burning Room"
16. "Waiting on The World To Change"


17. "Born and Raised"
18. "Gravity "

Chapter Five (Epilogue)

19. "Friend Of The Devil" (Grateful Dead)

Critic’s Notebook:
What: John Mayer at Talking Stick Arena
The Crowd: A few errant jam band aficionados, but mostly late 20-somethings to 50-something pop fans.
Random Notebook Dump: "Opener The Night Game’s big song 'The Outfield' doesn't sound unlike The Outfield."

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.

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