From somewhere in, around, or very near Charlotte on Tuesday afternoon, John Mayer was trying to think of the exact right words to sum up his reaction to President Donald Trump’s reaffirmation of his earlier statements that “both sides” were responsible for the violence at last weekend’s white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Va.
Around 4:30 p.m., the singer-songwriter unleashed a tweetstorm of a half-dozen posts that he felt captured it, including these:
▪ “It’s as if his head is made of glass. And you can see through it all of the flashes of horrible, corrupt thinking. You’re sure now.”
▪ “You’ve been sure it was bad. Now you’re sure it’s impossible.”
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▪ “The infrastructure that will be remembered today is the one the people will build so that we all become the president that this man is not.”
But a few hours later, Mayer stepped down from his bully pulpit and stepped up onto PNC Music Pavilion stage, from which he performed four distinct sets – full band, acoustic, trio and a reprise of the full band – over the course of two hours. And yes, there were guitar solos galore.
The only hint at politics, and it was more than a little bit tongue-in-cheek, came when he segued from the first set with his full seven-piece band to his solo acoustic set. He narrowed his eyebrows, leaned in toward the crowd of 20,000, and said:
“I’m prepared to try my hand at making the least-controversial statement ever – open your minds: This has all been a lot. That’s 100 percent. I love saying things that you can’t argue. It’s all been a lot. I’m gonna leave it there, ’cause that feels good, to just say something everybody can agree on.”
Now, if you take a second and read those words back, I think you’ll find that in addition to being kinda disarming and kinda amusing, his remarks are kinda clunky, too.
This is primarily because Mayer doesn’t stick to a playbook, as you’ll notice if you look online at his past several setlists – he’s got songs he prefers, to be sure, but unlike so many of his peers, every night is different. And when you see him live, you get the impression that every night is different because every night is – at least to some degree – being made up as he goes along.
At multiple moments throughout Tuesday’s show, he literally told the crowd he needed a minute to figure out what he was going to play next.
That said, his “least-controversial statement ever”? A lark, if I had to guess. Just like his decision – right after 2012’s “Something Like Olivia” and right before 2009’s “Who Says” – to muddle through a couple of lines of James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind.” He couldn’t seem to quite get the words right (“a very unpoetic version,” he quipped at one point), and yet, because his desire to connect with the crowd felt so authentic, these few seconds oozed with charm.
A bit later, in the middle of 2002’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland” (which he introduced as “not the greatest song in the world,” and admitted is funnier if you change the word “Your” to “My”), Mayer suddenly stopped cold and acknowledged the fact that it does a lot more for women than men. “Guys, we’re halfway through the song. All the guys in the Grateful Dead shirts. All the guys who want to hear the (John Mayer) Trio. ... Fifty percent of the song is done. Hang in there!”
Then, toward the end of the evening, he thanked the crowd for still coming out despite the fact that he’s “not necessarily burning up the charts” anymore.
All of that self-deprecation almost makes you forget how amazing a talent he actually is. Almost.
But then he’ll casually rip into one of his long – sometimes five-minute-long – guitar solos. His guitar solo during “Vultures,” for instance, would have made an appropriate score for “Shaft,” while the wailing he did on 2005’s “Who Did You Think I Was” (during his Trio’s set) could easily pass for a Fall Out Boy riff. Whatever you think of his studio records, they fail to truly capture his Joe Bonamassa-like guitar wizardry.
Over the course of his performance, he picked up and put down so many guitars, I lost count. (And true to his reputation for spontaneity, there were instances in which stagehands tried to bring him fresh instruments but were turned away.)
In the end, I was a little surprised that he steered clear of taking a definitive stand on the news of the day after lashing out so emphatically a few hours earlier. But I did wonder if his song choices – which, I’ll remind you, change from show to show – were more intentional than usual.
On Tuesday night, he closed his full band’s “reprise” set with 2006’s “Waiting On the World to Change.” It’s a song he leaves out of his show more often than he puts it in, and when he does include it, it typically pops up mid-set, not at the end.
The lyrics, for what they’re worth:
“Now we see everything that’s going wrong
“With the world and those who lead it
“We just feel like we don’t have the means
“To rise above and beat it...”
John Mayer’s setlist
2. “Moving On and Getting Over”
3. “Something Like Olivia”
4. “Who Says”
5. “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”
6. “Why Georgia”/“No Such Thing”
7. “Emoji of a Wave”
8. “Dreaming With a Broken Heart”/“Walt Grace Submarine Test”
9. “Your Body Is a Wonderland”
10. “Cross Road Blues”
12. “Who Did You Think I Was”
Full Band (Reprise)
13. “The Queen of California”
15. “In the Blood”
16. “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”
17. “Waiting on the World to Change”
18. “Stop This Train”