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John Mayer's AT&T Center Performance Shows There's a Place for Pop Crafted by Human Hands 

click to enlarge MIKE MCMAHAN
  • Mike McMahan
John Mayer delivered a fan-pleasing, two-and-a-half-hour concert at the AT&T Center Saturday night, showing that even in a world of computer-driven pop music, guitar chops still matter.

It’s not unfair to wonder if 2019 Mayer is attempting a sort of mid-career course correction. After all, can he keep filling seats with pop music as his audience ages? Saturday night’s answer seemed to be "hell yes."

To be fair to Mayer, he’s well-known as a guitar slinger — at least in certain circles. Since 2015 he has filled gigantic shoes in Dead & Company, playing Jerry Garcia’s role with three of the four surviving Grateful Dead members and packing football stadiums in the process. Not many musicians have the panache to pull that off. And it follows years of appearances and collaborations with folks like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and, yes, Eric Clapton.

But none of that mattered on Saturday, as Mayer — clad in a Mac Miller T-shirt — delivered a 23-song show spread over two sets. If the ghost of Garcia looms large over his psyche, he didn’t show it, as his most obvious influence remains Clapton, particularly the Slowhand era. Mayer doesn’t shy away from “Tears in Heaven”-style cheesiness, either, which is undoubtedly part of his wide appeal.

Mayer leaned into that vibe at the start of his second set. Accompanied by only acoustic guitar, he serenaded the crowd with Beyonce’s “XO,” his own early hit “Your Body Is A Wonderland” and “In Your Atmosphere,” an old song played infrequently until 2017 and never recorded in the studio.

The crowd, largely female, drew from a wide range of ages, including a few teens. Were there a lot of husbands and boyfriends dragged along for the ride? Yeah, pretty clearly. Were they secretly enjoying Mayer’s guitar fireworks? Almost certainly.

That guitar sound — tone, phrasing, tastefulness — is really the heart of Mayer’s artistic success. As soon as he starts a lead, the sound cuts all the way across his unnecessarily huge band, which included two other guitarists plus keys, bass, drums, percussion and backup singers. This Wall of Mayer felt superfluous, especially when his butter-smooth playing pushed the other players into the background.

Mayer hit the stage with “Belief,” one of five songs from his 2006 Continuum album. He unleashed his first flurry of guitar heroics as well, in this case invoking the soaring tone of Austin’s Eric Johnson. The first set also included commanding lead work on “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” and “Changing,” the latter of which featured verse melodies and phrasing that invoked late-era Bob Dylan.

He closed the first set with “Deal,” a Garcia solo tune frequently played by the Dead. It was probably the chanciest move artistically, since most of the crowd were likely unfamiliar with the song. A set-closer is an easy spot to drop a hit, and Mayer, to his credit, didn’t. He even treated the crowd to Dead imagery on the giant video screen behind the stage, typically used ensure the fans stuck in nosebleeds could see the band.

Mayer back-loaded the second set with hits, even acknowledging this with self-depricating stage banter: “I’m no dummy.” This meant readings of the R&B-flavored “Slow Dancing in A Burning Room” and “Waiting On The World To Change.” He closed the set with the crowd favorite “Gravity,” accompanied by cell phone flashlights, and, naturally one last stretch of guitar pyro.

The encore closed with “New Light,” a good-natured up-tempo number that sent the audience on their way. Was this an epic night of rock-n-roll-saved-my-life music? No. But it did show that there is a place for well-crafted, well-played pop and rock.

And no one in the AT&T Center was complaining.

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