I’ve always felt that John Mayer’s weak link in his seemingly never-ending arsenal of talents was his live show.
He is a fantastic guitarist, an accomplished songwriter and a sound vocalist. He has played alongside some of the all-time greats and held his own. He has collaborated with some of the most celebrated artists in popular music. He has a great sense of humour. He has his own Instagram show. There is no denying his musical genius. Yet the past few times I’ve gone to see him perform live, it’s always been slightly disappointing. Too short, too fluffy, safe song choices, no surprises etc. They’ve been enjoyable, but not memorable.
I haven’t seen Mayer perform in a few years, so it’s with a new sense of excitement and anticipation that I attend the Sydney leg of his world tour. It’s been a while since ‘The Search For Everything’ was released, so it’s hard to call this an album tour, yet the expectation is that these new, more cohesive songs would be most prominent.
Qudos Bank Arena is packed, if not sold out then very close. There’s no support act tonight – the first sign that things were going to be different, but also meaning an early start time of 7:45pm. Mayer and band walk out in complete darkness amongst deafening cheers, screams and applause. Then that all but familiar drum shuffle kicks off and we’re in firing on all cylinders with the sublime ‘Belief’ from 2006’s stunning ‘Continuum’.
The first thing I notice is just how mature the music sounds with a proper backing band. Accompanying Mayer are 2 guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist, a percussionist and 2 backing vocalists. It’s as bigger band as he’s toured with before. Even as Mayer progresses into second track ‘Moving On and Getting Over’ (preceded by a ridiculously perfect guitar intro by fellow axeman Isaiah Sharkey), I immediately appreciate just how far Mayer has come. It’s not the same guy I saw years ago. There’s a calmness to him, a commanding stage presence for a solo artist that reminds me of Eric Clapton or Billy Joel. Perhaps this is also exacerbated by the fact that the female to male audience ratio is much more balanced than on his previous tours, so there’s less of that ‘flavour of the month pop star’ vibe.
Mayer’s set is broken into a few parts. The first is an array of songs spanning the majority of his releases and it’s in this section we’re treated to the fantastic ‘I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)’ which is by far the pick of the night for me. The second section after a short interval starts with Mayer performing a few intimate acoustic tracks – but unfortunately the song selection is completely wasted in my opinion, and I’m left feeling dubiously disappointed at the 4 songs chosen. This is then followed by another all-band set similar to the first section where I’m delighted to hear personal favourites ‘In The Blood’ and ‘Edge of Desire’.
Mayer’s band is an absolute highlight of the show. He has paired himself with some stunning musicians, all who get a chance to showcase their skills throughout the night through various interludes, breaks, solos and spotlights. None more so than Sharkey, who’s jazzy and technical approach to guitar is perfectly complimented by Mayer’s bluesy and off-the-cuff style. Closet hero Pino Palladino is as solid as ever, and I find myself chuckling at his completely robotic approach to live gigs – he never once moves from the dark corner next to the kit as he lays down those solid bass grooves. Tonight was all about cohesiveness and collaboration, and each band member held their own throughout.
What hasn’t changed about Mayer is his offbeat sense of humour, stopping between tracks to offer quirky observations of himself, his songs, the city and other topics throughout the night. Some of his musings are a little cringy, but we all know what to expect by now (no white supremacist dick jokes in sight, however).
The letdown for me tonight was definitely song choice. This is a tough part of any gig as I’ve alluded to in previous live reviews – it’s always going to be hard to satisfy everyone in the crowd (Mayer repeatedly jokes about this very thing, too), so I can’t be too harsh, and I will happily concede that my preference of his obscure, deep album cuts are always teetered towards improbable on the ‘will he play this tonight?’ scale. However, choices such as the bland ‘Changing’, and the cringeworthy ‘Emoji of a Wave’ don’t help, as well as odd selections such as the Taylor Swift duet ‘Half Of My Heart’ and ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’, both of which do nothing in the argument for his choices. The setlist in general is quite ‘Continuum’ heavy, which is nice, but we got nothing from personal favourite album ‘Heavier Things’ and only a brief dip into ‘Room For Squares’ via ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’ and ‘Why Georgia’. It’s a shame, considering other cities got certified gems such as ‘In Your Atmosphere’, ‘Clarity’, ‘Badge and Gun’ and ‘Neon’.
The 25-song set is an impressive length compared to previous 12-14 song sets I’ve witnessed from him, and there’s a noticeable change in how Mayer now approaches live shows. It’s welcomed. The audience gets the best of both acoustic and electric Mayer and the band gets a chance to stretch their legs with choice cuts highlighting different members.
Tonight was by no means mind-blowing, and there’s plenty of room for Mayer to improve. Judging by how far he’s come in just a few years, however, I have absolutely no doubt that he will go from strength to strength, and I look forward to watching it happen.
John Mayer, Qudos Bank Arena, Friday 29th March 2019
- Moving On and Getting Over
- Love On The Weekend
- I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)
- Waitin’ On The Day
- Who Says
- Half of My Heart
- Waiting on the World to Change
- New Light
- In Repair
- Emoji of a Wave
- Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967
- Your Body Is A Wonderland
- Free Fallin’
- In The Blood
- Edge Of Desire
- Paper Doll
- Slow Dancing In A Burning Room
- Why Georgia
- If I Ever Get Around To Living
- I Guess I Just Feel Like
- Dear Marie