John Mayer the musician has been carefully cultivating John Mayer the brand over the last 10 years. He's merged his acoustic singer-songwriter persona with his blues-virtuoso alter-ego, developed the logos on his tour T-shirts and spat out streams of 140-character tweets that broadcast his most off-the-cuff musings. But though he clearly knows how to get results on his own terms, sometimes the terms aren't his to define — and as his recent Playboy misadventure demonstrated, even Mayer can hit a painfully wrong note. But at a pair of packed shows at New York's Madison Square Garden late last week, Mayer proved sometimes he's able to just let his music do the talking.
"You're looking at the clean me," Mayer announced midway through Thursday night's set. Then he launched into a solo acoustic medley of "My Stupid Mouth," "Daughters" and "3X5" that was immediately followed by a groovy cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" on electric guitar. It was an impressive display of his sharp guitar playing, appealing sing-alongs and personable wit, and the audience responded generously. Mayer was clearly grateful for the crowd's warmth. "It means the world to me you're here," he said on Friday. "I mean it from the bottom of my dumb heart."
Mayer was less concerned with sending messages via his song selection than picking tracks that showed off his evolution as an artist: the acoustic ("Why Georgia"), the bluesy ("Crossroads"), the groovy ("Vultures"), the heartbroken ("Slow Dancing in a Burning Room") and the hopeful ("Perfectly Lonely"). Mayer also acknowledged his inspirations with covers of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin' " and Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," which he cleverly slipped into the Mac-flavored "Half of My Heart."
Though his winter arena tour comes with hi-tech production — a massive lighting rig, mesh curtain and a giant projection screen — Mayer switched the set up each night, keeping the focus on the music. On Thursday, he honored a fan chant with an impromptu version of his love letter to the city, Room for Squares' "City Love," and pulled in lyrics from Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" during "Gravity." On Friday he exuded a more relaxed energy, breaking out a sultry take on "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" and a buoyant "Good Love Is on the Way."
On both nights, Mayer seemed to savor the audience's reaction to the line "It's a long night in New York City" from "Who Says." And perhaps feeling safe in his adopted hometown, Mayer got vulnerable during Friday's show-closing "Gravity," and debuted new lyrics that seem inspired by his Playboy fallout. He explained his new theory, that "lovelessness leads to loneliness, which leads to sadness, which leads to anger, which leads to hate" and spoke of imperfect batting averages. Then he sang:
"When you got hurt/it made you beautiful/the cracks around your heart/they let the light shine through./When you got hurt/in pieces on the floor/put them back together/even better than before"
The moment over, he finished the show in expected Mayer fashion: with an explosive solo that had him jamming on his knees with his guitar on the floor, moving forward, in the best way he knows how.
Thursday, February 25th:
"No Such Thing"
"Slow Dancing in a Burning Room"
"My Stupid Mouth" -> "Daughters" -> "3x5" (medley)
"Ain't No Sunshine"
"Waiting on the World to Change"
"Bigger Than My Body"
"Half of My Heart"
"City Love" (tease)
"Friends, Lovers or Nothing"
Friday, February 26th:
"Good Love is On the Way"
"I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)"
"Waiting On The World To Change (w/ Michael Franti)"
"Half of My Heart"
"No Such Thing"
• John Mayer Apologizes for Using "N-Word" in Raw Interview
• John Mayer Debuts Battle Studies at Intimate New York Gig
• John Mayer on His Biggest Hits, Tabloid Enemies and Endless Search for Love