Back on Track: John Mayer's All About the Music (At Last)


John Mayer, Hammersmith Apollo, from the back of the room (again) [the pastel effect isn't a Photoshop filter, it's all my own incompetence].

A week on from a performance so quirky as to seem almost self-defeating, John Mayer returned to a London stage and played the kind of understatedly triumphant show which only someone of his considerable class, constitution and conviction is capable. I've seen him play five times in London now - at the Forum in 2006, the Albert Hall (on my birthday) in 2007, Brixton Academy in '08, last week and last night - and this was far and away the best of the lot.

If I didn't know better, at times I might have thought he'd read what I'd written here after last Monday's curious acoustic gig and treated it like notes. Instead, it's now clear he must have had his own misgivings about his performance seven nights previously and knew exactly what needed to be put right. He even riffed on how his nerves get the better of him, how when you read about him saying some dumb stuff it's usually just there to cover up the serious things he has trouble sometimes getting to the surface - the "shell game" I referred to at the end of the piece about the Hard Rock gig. But this was said quickly, over and done in a trice: the rest of the night was empatically, euphorically all about the music, which is where Mayer not only excels, but where he truly comes alive.

By the time he started any kind of dialogue with his audience we were three majestic, meaty songs (a thunderous, pulverising Heartbreak Warfare; a subtly different take on Crossroads where Mayer's rattly guitar utterly dominated, forcing Steve Jordan's drumming from the crackling pump of the Battle Studies version towards a syncopated patter; and the majestic Vultures, played just a tad slower than on record, with all that airy, breathable space left gloriously wide open) into a nigh-on perfect set-list. After that, nothing else really was going to get in the way. And even what he said at that moment was pitched just right, too: noticing two banners held up in the crowd, saying something about loving him and wanting his babies, he made a sort of joke involving Twitter - and for the briefest of moments it was looking like the whole self-referential house of cards might come crashing back down again. But after such solid musical foundations, that could never happen: and, right on cue, he pointed out that he wasn't going to let his talking "overshadow the fact that I fucking play the guitar," then jumped straight into Perfectly Lonely, a track even more than anything else on Battle Studies reliant for part of its effect on the listener's awareness of his public persona; and in a rollicking, insouciant performance he managed to make it all about the (drop-dead gorgeous) song. Incredible.  

When I interviewed him in Los Angeles two years ago, he'd talked disarmingly about his difficulty in overcoming the tendency to play too much, to fill in the space in his songs when he performs them. "I'm still fighting the over-playing on stage," he explained. "I can still hear where I wanna get to. I'm getting closer. This is where the pop side of it comes in: the blues side listens to the pop side and goes, 'Errr, not expressive enough.' And the pop side listens to the blues side and says, 'Too repetitive.' So when I'm playing blues, the blues side of my brain is getting it, but the pop side goes, 'You played that already - it's repetitive.' But if you apply that same construct to Jimi Hendrix, you'd go, 'Jimi Hendrix - you played that already.' 'Albert King - you played that already.' So, it's a matter of finding the middle ground. If I can do it, which I've done on a couple songs, then I really feel like I have a place in music: if I can't, then I'm just lucky to still have a gig."

Last night, to these ears anyway, he hit that spot for the whole two hours. He did so most breathtakingly on Gravity - introduced as "the song that saved my life" - which was placed, brilliantly, right at the end of the set. The solo was beyond nuts - literally: he struck harmonics then changed the pitch by bending the strings past the end of the fretboard, right up beside the machine heads, resulting in gently modulated, pure, unfussily smooth tones. There was no show-offiness, nothing unnecessary - just an intensity of musical expression transmitted as directly as possible to the listener.

It may not work for everyone, but I rate my guitarists more by the notes they don't play as the ones they do: to hold as much back, knowing that every space could be filled with something technically dazzling, is, to me, the really skilful, soulful part. "Lucky to still have a gig"? We were lucky to be at this one.

Complaints and criticisms? Well, I would've liked it if they'd had room for Who Did You Think I Was? - the only one of my most favourite Mayer songs I've never been there to hear him play live - and it was a little bit of a shame there wasn't an airing for Assassin, which sounded superb in its stripped-back acoustic form last week. But that's it, and in a perfectly balanced set I can't really think of where they could've fitted. Bigger Than My Body, a song I love (not despite but in part because of the solo's obvious nod to U2's New Year's Day) but which he's sometimes played a little half-heartedly, was returned to its inspirational best. Belief, the sentiment of which can seem a tad trite if taken solely on face value, became riveting thanks to the pugnacious hip hop thump of Jordan's drums and Sean Hurley's bass. And then there was Half of My Heart, another one of Battle Studies' perfect pop songs, played in a way that suggests it's already doing its job of repairing the emotional devastation it sprung from. I wouldn't even have wanted less of Jordan's pugilistic drum solo, in which he played rhythms and beats, not fills.

Awesome is the word. And, just like that, everyone's wanting to talk about the music. Result.

Click here for the set in Spotify playlist form.


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