Taken from Orange County Register (March 26, 2010)
John Mayer sharp but spotty at Staples Center
by BEN WENER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Let's address the unavoidable first: the brouhaha over John Mayer's not-so-salacious Playboy interview last month, which, despite its limp jokes in poor taste, was merely further proof that this well-established motormouth still speaks before he thinks.
Is he a racist for uttering the n-word? Hardly. Is he a man-whore? Probably not as much as we think. Is he supremely self-obsessed? Well, when wasn't he?
The whole thing has got to be one of the biggest non-issues of the year so far, just another momentary attention-grabber in a TMZ era out of control with sensationalism. One week it was seemingly all anyone could talk about; the next, most people had forgotten what he had said, and I still suspect most never got proper context anyway, only sound-bites.
What's more, the fallout, it seems, has been fleeting to the point of nonexistent. Those who couldn't stand him before still can't, and no amount of mea culpas or clever tweets or brilliant guitar shredding would ever change that. As for those who adore him, well, to some degree he's momentarily ceased being the self-effacing pretty boy several generations of women fell in lust with; his misunderstood arrogance is kinda getting in the way. (He really could rehabilitate both his reputation and psyche if he'd step away from the celebrity machinery for a while.)
Yet nothing appears to be slowing his career momentum. Case in point: Staples Center was packed to the rafters Thursday night with thousands of screaming fans - guys who want to be him, women who'd gladly let him peruse porn for two hours before sleeping with him, and people of both genders who simply think he's among the finest purveyors of sophisticated pop music today. After less than a decade of work, and at only 32, it's clear his legend is already beginning to be sealed. Love him or loathe him, he's something of a new rock-star exemplar.
<span></span>That said, I'm not entirely sold on the current John Mayer, and I think his confidence has been shaken significantly - his latest L.A. performance had plenty of the technical prowess we've come to expect but little of the moxie that has made him so endearing.
Battle Studies, his wobbly fourth album, is touted as Mayer at his most exposed and scarred, yet all I detect are more of the same, somewhat self-inflicted wounds he ruminated over much more convincingly on 2006's superior Continuum. His latest bout of "Heartbreak Warfare" may have stung more (losing Jennifer Aniston out of immaturity will do that to a guy), but its best moments are merely extensions of the romantic problems he's faced in song all along.
Nothing about his Staples show altered or enhanced that - again, it felt like a rehash, only with less heat and passion. Honestly, given the pointless tumult surrounding him lately, the best thing he could do for himself is to re-enlist Pino Palladino on bass and head into the studio with superb drummer-producer Steve Jordan to cut another bare-bones John Mayer Trio disc. He could do with a case of the blues to ground him again.
Take his guitar playing, for instance. Because he's always been a tabloid pinup as much as a hotshot on six strings, I get why he hams it up seductively on stage, whereas a forefather like Eric Clapton would never dare. But I wish he'd at least look to Sting to find a happy medium between being a sex symbol and a serious musician. And I don't know that he'll ever make any truly masterful music until he worries less about using his guitar to make love to ladies in the crowd and, taking cues from Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, concentrates instead on making love to his guitar.
Too often he merely engages in foreplay - super tasty licks stuffed into the constructs of glossy-smooth soul-pop grooves that would be about as daring as Michael McDonald if they weren't dappled with Mayer's fluid doodling. More and more he reminds me of the difference between seeing Clapton when he's no-frills and all-focus (his latest tours are new paradigms for rockers in their later years) and seeing Slowhand while touring behind lesser works - say, Behind the Sun in the mid-'80s or Pilgrim in the late '90s, when the new songs didn't lend enough room to burn.
You still get quality playing, sure, with plenty of meaty moments to justify the ticket price; "Assassins," about as dumb a metaphor for Mayer's love life as he's ever concocted, nonetheless smoked by its finish, as he led his sterling seven-member band into a galloping Police groove by first inserting the refrain from "Wrapped Around Your Finger" into his solo.
But a lot of what he's serving up right now is just slick, predictable, going-nowhere formula. Mayer, like Clapton and every other whiz who ever scored pop hits, is better than that, yet he's trapped by his own commercialism.
That's largely his intention, of course; that's why he wrote "Daughters" (not performed here) and "No Such Thing" (by the numbers this night), and it's why he makes bittersweet cute on "Perfectly Lonely" (better than on record) and "Half a Heart," which he concluded by first segueing into its antithesis (Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams") and then a song he feels is a fusion of the two (Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'"). Yet it's when he jams out that you detect his undeniable greatness. (It's also tellingly the same moment when half the crowd tends to tune out.)
Thursday night it ate up the middle of his two-hour performance, first with a noticeably slower "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," smoldering like sweet incense … then "Assassins," saved by that terrific finish (he was even banging out licks with a drumstick) … and then things really got interesting, primarily via a seriously wicked expansion of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" … until Jordan, who kept tweaking that tune's rhythms, ripped into a ridiculously funky Sly Stone-inspired solo that eventually dove-tailed into "Waiting on the World to Change."
Just tremendous stuff - but then it all went back to the usual rubber-faced Mayer shtick.
In those middle moments, he was something else, a guitar hero who just happens to be a 6-foot-3 stud. Much of the rest of the time, no matter how humbled he tried to be, he was still acting like a lothario who just happens to be an unerring ace on a Stratocaster.
One of these days, I'm certain, he's gonna put all these pieces together just right.
As for opening act Michael Franti + Spearhead, I'm very torn.
As a longtime admirer, I'm dismayed to see such an outspoken rebel resort to so much self- censoring in the name of wider popularity, building off the irresistible fluke hit "Say Hey (I Love You)." It's logical that he'd keep his views in check, so as not to upset the headliner's audience, and there's certainly nothing wrong with toning down rhetoric in the interest of making happier, more humanistic music, which the sky-scraping Franti (taller than most anyone in the arena, even performing barefoot) does with aplomb, deftly blending in bits of Bob Marley and Stax soul sweetness into his heavily Jamacian funk-soul stew.
But without the fire in his belly that I've seen at Spearhead shows going back more than a decade, it's hard not to view this stint touring with Mayer as something of a sell-out. Take away the commentary, ramp up the fun by concentrating almost entirely on songs from his breakthrough album All Rebel Rockers - and what's left isn't any deeper than the Black Eyed Peas.
Which, of course, worked perfectly at Staples; by the end of his set, having gotten up-close with the crowd more than a few times, Franti had completely won them over. Yet it felt like a hollow victory - and by the time he wrapped up with a discombobulated version of "Say Hey" that deferred to the multitude of kids yanked up on stage (rather than merely nailing the groove), it finally dawned on me that that ditty is nothing more than the new "Mambo No. 5."
Photos by Kevin Sullivan, The Orange County Register.