Search for clarity

John Mayer: a pop songwriter with a fondness for jamming
John Mayer splits the difference between his fans' various agendas

Three months ago, Rolling Stone devoted an issue to what it deemed to be rock's 50 greatest immortals, with testimonials written by other musicians who admired them. The Jimi Henrix piece was written by singer-songwriter John Mayer, who lauded Hendrix as the "common denominator of every style of contemporary music." As Mayer pointed out, there was no one Hendrix: He was the genius improvisational musician, but also the sensitive song-poet; he was the bluesman, but also the space-age rock god.

You get the feeling that while Mayer would never put himself on Hendrix's artistic level, he relates to the contradictions in Hendrix's position. Three years after releasing his three-million-selling major-label debut, Room For Squares, the 26-year-old Mayer finds himself caught between two clashing sensibilities. On the one hand, he's a pop tunesmith who crafts compact, tightly structured records. But he's also a Berklee College of Music alum who loves to stretch out on intricate guitar solos. He attracts plenty of teenage girls drawn to his hunky gawkiness, but at the core, he has a jam-band fan base.

In the patchouli-scented tradition of the Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic, Mayer's loyalists tend to follow him from city to city, eager to catch variations from one performance to the next.

"It's unique to have it in pop music," Mayer says of his road-warrior fans. "I think pop music traditionally been a matter of recital. I think most pop bands are reciting their tunes. I think the berth for the placement of improvisation is a lot narrower in pop music than it is in the style of music you expect to see people following bands in: like jazz or the 'jam band' mentality. I think the way that I've done it is kind of approaching pop as if it were a style of music that you can improvise over, and it really is.

"To me, improvising over pop changes, especially playing blues solos, is really where I'm captivated. Playing blues over blues is okay, I'm cool with that too. Playing with a jazz mentality over pop music is so inspiring to me and that's what going back home and writing music is for: to write the bed for your improvisation for the next two years."

Room For Squares connected with the masses for much the same reason that Mayer's former tour mate Norah Jones did with her debut album. It presented familiar, even traditional, musical values in a youthful package. On his best songs, particularly the ironically breezy single "No Such Thing," and the ballads "83" and "Why Georgia," he offered a fresh update of that period in the mid-'70s when Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and James Taylor were sneaking jazzy progressions onto pop radio.

Unfortunately, the album's most ubiquitous track, "Your Body Is A Wonderland," might have been the smarmiest seduction song to hit the charts since "Afternoon Delight." It didn't help that Mayer became inextricably linked to the icky Dave Matthews, whom he resembles much more as a vocalist than as a songwriter.

To Mayer's credit, his sophomore release, Heavier Things, doesn't succumb to the predictable "touring's a grind, fame sucks" whininess that usually follows such hard-earned commercial breakthroughs. The material is generally weaker than on Room for Squares, but the sound is richer and more ambitious. For the leadoff track, "Clarity," he enlisted jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove and hip-hop drummer ?uestlove of the Roots. The ?uestlove connection led to their joint appearance on a Chappelle Show skit which spoofed the notion that white people love guitars while black people respond to drums ("I think that's probably what I'm the most recognized from," he says. "'Loved you on Chappelle': I hear that every day.").

Mayer says he sought out ?uestlove because "Clarity" cried out for his sense of groove. "I was so in love with the D'Angelo Voodoo record that he played drums on, which really is a bible for how to make an R&B record," he says. "Musicians talk to musicians in the language of other records. Part of what making this record was, you could anybody you want to play on your record, if it's your second record and your first one sold a buttload of copies. The freedom that I had was finding really great studio guys. You sit around and go, 'God, I've got this horn part, it's like a Roy Hargrove horn part.' So, call Roy Hargrove."

John Mayer
with Maroon 5
and DJ Logic

Sunday, July 25
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
16765 Lookout Road, Selma
Even before he hooked up with ?uestlove, Mayer had become a professed - if unlikely - car-jam favorite amongst hip-hop stars such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and the Neptunes.

"I think hip-hop has a nose for honesty," Mayer says. "Hip-hop's only been about being yourself and doing it with a certain amount of confidence. I'm a lanky white guy, but I think when you do it and you don't flinch, I think that's what people respond to, hip-hop or otherwise. I think there's a lot of flinching going on, and a lot of waffling. A lot of, 'Hey, I'm a white guy and now I'm hanging out with a black guy so I'm going to ask him when his record drops. I'm going to walk across the line into his world.' It's all well intended. But for me, I'm the whitest man you'll ever meet in your life and I will still make you move your ass."

Although he imposes a great deal of discipline on himself in the studio, rarely taking a solo that lasts more than a few bars, Mayer views himself as a guitar player above all else. He self-consciously grapples with how much soloing to include in his shows, ever aware that he's drawing people with differing agendas.

"If you're a 15-year-old girl and you're in the front row, you are cheering for 'Wonderland' and the way my ass looks when I turn around," he says. "And I don't even mean to discount that, because they're also cheering for the intensity of what's going on. They may not know that the guitar solo I'm playing is actually quoted from Albert King Blues Power Live, but they know that it's something that's passionate and that they're responding to. But they bought the ticket because they want to hear the song.

"Then there's people 10 rows back who are craning their necks to see what amp I'm playing through and what part of the neck I'm soloing on. And then there's people who are into it for the songwriting of it. That's the cool part to me, that I'm just playing." •


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