John Mayer: Foot and Mouth Outbreak at the Hard Rock Cafe

John Mayer, from the back of the room, Hard Rock Cafe, London, January 11, 2009

I wasn't reviewing John Mayer's Q-sponsored gig at the Hard Rock Cafe in London last night. But if I had been, I'd have written something along these lines.

If he ever finds that the music thing isn't working out any more, John Mayer could do worse than to try to get a job in demolition. Certainly, on the evidence of his first performance in the UK since the release of his fourth LP, Battle Studies, last year, the guitarist, singer and songwriter has a rare facility for quickly digging himself a deep hole, and then finding a way of adroitly clambering out of it.

Two thirds of the way through an acoustic set for a small, invite-and-comp-winner crowd, Mayer - who had confessed to feeling jetlagged - headed off on one of his periodic freeform rambles. As so often, the subject of his withering wit was himself - or, at least, the version of himself that one tends to see portrayed through the prism of the American celebrity media. And, also as so often, Mayer was making himself the butt of his own jokes.

He began by musing on whether, if he got a woman pregnant that night, the term would be nine months plus eight hours - because he would have long been back in LA. (An unspoken part of his self-deprecating shtick involves implicitly nudging his audience, who he knows will be in on the joke - anyone familiar with his bulging gossip cuttings file, he's saying, would have long known he's a serial womaniser; though of course, he actually means to unpick that preconception by ridiculing it.) He then wondered if that time would be extended further if the child was born on the Isle of Wight; then Easter Island; then if it was born in a leap year on February 29th. Up to this point, the giggles had been turning to guffaws; the freestyle routine was working a treat. Then he said: "That would be a living abortion." There was stunned silence, punctuated by audible gasps. Then, quick as you like, he yanked himself back from the abyss. "Let me take in this uncomfortable glory," he quipped, a recovery as agile (and doubtless as painful to endure) as the Ali rope-a-dope, but with one important difference: Ali had someone else beating him up in public. 

It's doubtful whether this sort of thing is going to hurt Mayer in any meaningful way at all. His penchant for stand-up, and his delight in its very "edginess", is an important part of who he is and who his fans know and want him to be: and you need moments like this to remind you that he really is just making it all up as he goes along, to preserve the sense of danger that any high-wire act needs. In any case, it's hardly a faux pas on a par with, say, phoning up a septuagenarian actor and swearing at him about having shagged his grand-daughter then broadcasting the tapes even after you'd been expressly asked not to - and we know how easy it is to maintain a career after that.

What's frustrating, though, is that Mayer has, if not shot himself in the foot, then chosen to drop a lead weight on his toes, right at the moment when, for the first time in his career, there was some danger of people in Britain being able to talk about him as a musician first and foremost.

It was a fine, fun, warmly engaging performance, Mayer and regular tour guitarist Robbie McIntosh giving songs new and old a dose of patient clarity. His voice was a little ragged during the opening Heartbreak Warfare, one of several songs to be given a looser, more open interpretation than their steelier on-record incarnations. Daughters had a couple of (post-ironic ironic?) lighters in the air, and he joshed about how difficult Edge of Desire is to both play and sing at the same time, obligingly making a mistake at the start of the second verse and correcting himself before continuing; yet managed still to imbue those desolate lines - "I'm about to set fire to everything I see/I love you so much I'll go back on the things I believe" - with even more sincerity than he does on the album.

And for the rest of the evening, the jokes worked a treat. Noting that the sign above the exit was a signature Hard Rock platitude - "Save the Planet" - Mayer suggested that perhaps, after a night on the ale in such surroundings, something less ambitious might be appropriate: "Call your Girlfriend", perhaps. A cover of Free Falling was introduced as a song by "another artist who doesn't do very well in the UK".

But even here, it's a game of double- or even triple-bluff. It's as if Mayer wants us to believe in the real him, the person behind songs constructed with clarity, precision and consummate skill - and that that person is needy, desperate to be liked, incapable of standing up in public without being adored. Having met him twice, I'm prepared to believe that's exactly who he is. But it would be a whole lot easier to believe in the born performer, the witty and erudite songwriter, the dazzling guitarist - and to like them whole-heartedly - without the shell game he feels he has to play around himself. I don't want him to be dishonest: but his music has enough of that vulnerability and uncertainty for me not to need the persona dissection as well - as entertaining as it is.

Maybe next week, at his full-band gig in front of a sold-out Hammersmith Apollo, we'll see a different side of John Mayer. It would certainly be a joy if we were only talking about the music afterwards.


Well put!

posted by: nancy rikard: 26 Jan, 2010 06:08:42

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