Believe The Hype -- John Mayer Live at the Irvine Amphitheatre

Orange County, CA, USA; Sunday, July 27th, 2008

by Melanie Love

rs_mayer_220If I didn’t believe Rolling Stone before, I do now: John Mayer is a rock god. Playing a sold-out, two-plus hour show at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, California, Mayer blew through a crammed-full setlist of already-classic cuts off of 2006’s Continuum, catchy, folk-pop hits from earlier in his career, a surprisingly wide selection of covers, two encores, as well as the debut of a promising brand new song.

“The set list is so right on and so packed that I was told not to trade story time for song time tonight,” Mayer announced at the beginning of the set, but the charmingly offbeat (and hilariously uncensored!) singer nevertheless managed to fit in some memorable anecdotes. Launching into his first single all those years ago, “No Such Thing,” Mayer bemoaned the state of a local all-too cheesy lite-rock station, Star 98.7, and recalled hearing this very song trapped in traffic one day when it used to be featured in Star’s rotation: “The first thing I wanted to do was pee, just pee as much as possible,” was his initial response, though he followed that winning remark up by saying that the moment had made him realize he wanted to keep making music, and good music he could be proud of.

He absolutely has. From the loose, thrilling bluesy-grooves of “Mercy,” Mayer’s take on recent soulful sensation, Duffy (“We’re gonna play this so funky you can smell it!”) to the gloriously catchy, gorgeous instrumentation of “Waiting On The World To Change” to the brilliant “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room,” which here, following a Radiohead fade-in, was stripped down to its acoustics, revealing its achingly lovely core, the track list flowed so well you barely noticed the curveballs in Mayer’s ever-evolving set as they soared towards their mark.

Opener “Bigger Than My Body,” off of 2003’s Heavier Things, finds itself beefed up with churning guitar riffs and drums you could feel pounding in your chest as they rattled the seats (plus, way less falsetto), leading straight into soul-searching standout “Why Georgia” without ever missing a beat. Next, one of Continuum’s countless standouts, “Belief,” is still as dynamic as always, with big bluesy solos to support the deftly crafted lyrics (“Belief is a beautiful armor / But makes for the heaviest sword / Like punching underwater / You never can hit who you’re trying for”). “Say,” his contribution to The Bucket List, somehow belies the cheesiness of the film with its poignant lyrics and soaring instrumentation.

Mayer’s collaboration with Herbie Hancock, “Stitched Up,” is a lesser-known gem, spilling over with swaggering devotion to singledom (“Don't wanna be stitched up out of my mind / Feeling strung out, laggin’ behind / All trapped in, can’t do a thing because I’m locked down”) with its funked-up, slinky beats and thrumming bass.

johnmayerirvine_300Meanwhile, he manages to make the covers here entirely his own as well, injecting a twist into the familiar classics (not to forget the aforementioned -- and unexpected -- Duffy interpretation). He prefaced Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” by saying, “Like me, this song is going to bed alone tonight,” and the flailing rebellion of the original becomes a little more regretful here, hopelessly aimless, sung in Mayer’s silky-smooth yet almost mournful vocals instead of Petty’s distinctive rasp. His takes on Cream’s “Crossroads” and “Bold As Love” (which was featured on Continuum and his latest live album, Where The Light Is) are full to the seams with building, slow-burning jams, doing justice -- and giving rival -- to the legendary axe-men themselves. And later in the first encore, Mayer handed the vocals over to guitarist David Ryan Harris on a riotous take on Van Halen’s “Panama,” going shirtless and pogoing around the stage as he took over lead guitars, pounding out some blistering riffs in Eddie Van Halen’s signature tapping style on a VH-esque paint-scrawled Stratocaster (and even launching into a breezy solo from behind his back at one point.)

Newly debuted “Taking On Water” is also worth a mention. “I’ve always played new stuff, given you a chance to weigh in on it and call it crap,” the ever-humble Mayer said, laughing (this from a guy who broke into the second song to ask, “Are you guys ready for the best set list we ever wrote in our entire lives?). Not that he had anything to doubt with “Water,” a pleasantly downbeat track that easily could’ve found its way onto Continuum; it’s a searchingly introspective affair that molds a metaphor of a single helpless boat adrift on the ocean, ending finally with the beautiful, transcendent line, “Then someday I’ll wash upon someone else's shore.” [Editor's note: Partial video of Mayer's Irvine performance of the song is here.]

From the first chord to the final drum roll of this show, Mayer was infectiously energetic, improvising lyrics here and there, breaking out into little loose-limbed dances, and, of course, adding in funny, mostly relevant stories in between songs. It’s clear, above all, that he truly loves to play -- to riff, to experiment, to connect -- and like he has said in his blog, “This is about making 20,000 people feel okay in the world. Not alone. Full. Hopeful. JOYFUL.” That’s the power of music, and I definitely felt it that night.

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