Photos & Review by Max Stewart
What John Mayer does defies logic. He is a massively successful solo artist in the pop rock realm, selling out arenas with catchy, well-crafted songs consistently since his debut album Room for Squares in 2001. It is a rare feat for any musician to maintain mainstream relevance in the ever-changing landscape of music, so that alone is admirable. But he is also an otherworldly guitarist that can seemingly play whatever style he wants with ease.
If we are talking the blues, he has been praised by greats such as Eric Clapton and B.B. King, and ended up starting the fantastic John Mayer Trio in 2005 alongside the elite players Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums. If we are talking ‘jam bands’, at some point he heard the song “Althea” on Pandora by the Grateful Dead, and after never being a ‘Deadhead’ at any point in his life he dove headfirst into the band’s catalog. Cut to a few years later he mastered the songs so effectively he was offered a spot to join the founding members of the Grateful Dead to form Dead & Company.
All the while, he has transcended into new sonic realms in his solo career while maintaining commercial appeal, most notably on Born & Raised and Continuum.
John Mayer has taken a ‘traditional’ route to music success and turned it on its head. He is living proof that if you have enough talent and fortitude, you can truly do it all. When he announced a solo tour this year, it seemed to be an attempt to get back to his formative singer-songwriter days. Bear in mind, this is a legitimate solo live music affair, no backing musicians lurking in the shadows as a vocal or instrumental crutch. Just Mayer and his guitar or piano (or even both simultaneously in some songs). It takes real courage to take the stage without a net in front of a huge crowd. But if anyone has the skillset and confidence to be able to pull that off, it is Mayer.
On a Monday night in March, Mayer sat down with an acoustic guitar and barreled through songs over his storied career for the packed house at Atlanta‘s State Farm Arena. Opening the show with “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”, the sold-out audience stood to its feet and roars of cheers echoed the arena walls. He pulled out a beautiful 12-string acoustic Martin guitar for “Heartbreak Warfare”, which added depth and new layers to the 2009 release.
A few songs into the set, a 2002 video from Mayer’s Room for Squares album promotion played on the screen, highlighting how far he has come. “More so tonight, more than ever, it’s really about these songs. Because as I play them, I remember them. I played a lot of places around here…” Mayer noted after the Georgia crowd belted every line from “Why Georgia”.
What some people don’t know is that Mayer actually got his start in the Atlanta area. Understandably, you may be asking yourself, Why Georgia? Sorry, I had to do it. Well as it turns out, the Connecticut native was roommates with current Zac Brown Band guitarist Clay Cook at the Berklee College of Music, and Cook convinced him to come down to ATL so they could pursue their musical dreams (they actually had a duo for a while called Lo Fi Masters). Mayer played many local venues in Atlanta in his early days, most notably Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, where he also worked the door. Legend has it that he wrote some of his first songs while manning the door by the entrance to the intimate room (“that is why we don’t let doormen perform anymore” an employee once jokingly told me). He also shot the cover to his debut EP Room for Squares at the Majestic Diner on Ponce De Leon Avenue. He ended up growing a local audience, winning open mics, and eventually got signed by Columbia. The rest is… well, you know.
The hometown vibe definitely made the set feel loose and Mayer seemed at ease with the audience. “Neon” may have the most complicated riff for a pop song ever, but he introduced the song with a quick guitar lesson and excellent instrumental section to ease the crowd in. “In the spirit of being in Atlanta with just an acoustic guitar, I’m going to play a new song..” Mayer said before he went into the song, “Driftin'”. It is almost unheard of for an artist deep into their career to still be prolific with new songs worth listening to, but “Driftin'” was one of the best songs of the set.
Throughout the tour, Mayer has been playing medleys of tunes, sometimes taking nods from signs that audience members hold up. He even took a request from someone at a show in Pittsburgh, who had a sign that read ‘Please play “A Face to Call Home” in Atlanta.” Mayer admired the specifics and foresight of the request, so could not help but go through with it.
In another example of taking sections of songs and interweaving them, “Something’s Missing” leading into the superb riff of “In Your Atmosphere” flowed perfectly. Mayer also sat down on piano for a few songs, including a mind-boggling display of playing guitar and piano interchangeably on “Changing”. Seeing the tune “If I Ever Get Around to Living” live, where the varied melodies of the verses shine brightly on a double-neck acoustic guitar, was a highlight of the night.
It is clear that throughout his vast musical career, Mayer has grown as an artist and his musical and songwriting acumen has sharpened at every turn. He has taken pieces of the Dead, the blues, and all things in between and added them all to his solo artist toolkit. John Mayer’s nonlinear pathway in his musical journey ultimately led him back to where it all started in Atlanta with just an acoustic guitar in hand, and we do not see the adventure ending any time soon.