By Brian Ives
Back in 2001, I interviewed John Mayer for VH1; he was promoting his debut album, Room for Squares. I was told that it was his first television interview. Even as a brand new artist, he was kind of a full formed persona, not too much different than the way he would be a few million record sales later: personable, charismatic, very passionate about music, sort of eager to please, and to make you laugh. Not every joke hit, but he was fun to talk to, both on camera and off.
After the interview was over, we chatted a bit, and somehow Stevie Ray Vaughan’s name came up. I found that surprising. There wasn’t much blues influence on the album and very little electric guitar, and I mentioned this to him. He seemed more like Dave Matthews without the jamming.
I wish I’d taped this conversation, but Mr. Mayer made this point: if he debuted as a up-and-coming guitar hero, he’d end up with a career that would appeal to guitar fanatics, and he wanted a career that appealed to everybody. He wanted radio hits. He said that his electric guitar would be more prominent on future albums.
I was impressed by that; to be such a talented guitar player, and refrain from using that skill on a debut album? Not many artists would have the mental discipline, or the vision, to keep that particular arrow in the quiver. Not many artists have that level of self-awareness from the get-go (which made his occasional interview mishaps in the following years even more surprising to me).
I thought of that conversation last night at Madison Square Garden (April 5), when Mayer headlined a three-part show to an enthusiastic audience who were receptive all of Mayer’s incarnations. The first part of the show, or “Chapter One,” as it was dubbed, featured Mayer’s full six-piece band, anchored by the rhythm section of Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums. The band, tight as hell, stretched out the arrangements on Mayer’s songs, particularly on “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and the hit “Waiting on the World to Change,” which morphed into Bob Marley’s “War,” with guitarist David Ryan Harris taking over on lead vocals.
“Chapter Two” saw Mayer return to his role as a solo acoustic performer, as the stage morphed into a set that looked like a log cabin in a mystical forest (it wasn’t totally solo; different band members accompanied him during the set). The highlight was his laid back take on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” a song that he recalled listening to in his bedroom on MTV when he was growing up.
“Chapter Three” was dedicated to The John Mayer Trio, featuring Palladino and Jordan (they released Try! in 2005). Their set was preceded by a mini-documentary about the JM3, perhaps to give context to the audience in preparation for what they were about to see. The context may have been helpful, but wasn’t necessary; the audience were with Mayer, all the way. Beginning this segment with the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads,” it occurred to me that Mayer may be occupying a role similar to that of one of his idols, Eric Clapton; as a guy who brings blues to a very mainstream audience.
During that song, I recalled another interview I did with Mayer a few years after the first one. This time, it was at Christie’s Auction House, Mayer was helping to promote an auction of some of Eric Clapton’s guitars (one of which he grabbed, and proceeded to play Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” on, with a bit of snark). He maintained that Clapton’s greatest work was the 1989 album Journeyman. And it wasn’t just the best Clapton solo album: it was better than anything he’d done with Cream, Derek and the Dominoes, Blind Faith and the Yardbirds, which to me, was crazy-talk.
“I want to move around less on stage,” he told me. “I don’t want to sweat.” He wanted to be the late ’80s/early ’90s Clapton, dressed sharply, singing soulfully and playing blazing guitar solos.
(An interesting side note here: during that interview, he suggested hosting a show for VH1, and that happened, although the show lasted just one episode.)
Mayer closed the trio section of his set with Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” that was just stellar. But what was nearly as amazing as the performance itself was that the audience reacted to it with as much enthusiasm as they did to his hits.
The full band then returned for a set that had more of the flavor of his other gig — he is, of course, the lead guitarist for Dead and Company, the ad hoc Grateful Dead reunion band. “Queen of California” had a big Allman Brothers Band vibe, but midway through, he switched to the Paul Reed Smith guitar that he played on the Dead and Co. tour, and began channeling Jerry Garcia, as the band morphed his recent solo song into the Dead’s chestnut “Fire on the Mountain.” Again, the crowd was with him all the way. The fact that he omitted some notable hits—he didn’t play “No Such Thing” or “Your Body is a Wonderland” —for lesser known songs and classic rock covers, didn’t seem to make a difference. The fans were there to hear him play what he wanted to play, and Mayer thanked them for that, often. “I want to thank you for letting me go my own way,” he said at one point. “You let me be the artist that I want to be.”
And that may be Mayer’s biggest triumph: imagining a career where he has an arsenal of hits, but he doesn’t have to play them, he gets radio play with new songs but also has a second career keeping the Dead alive. And judging by the reaction from the audience, he’ll probably continue to follow his artistic music, for decades to come, while playing in big venues. Just like Eric Clapton.