Music & Nightlife

Concert review: Yup, John Mayer nailed his guitar solos — and his shaggy-dog story

John Mayer, Spectrum Center, Friday August 9th, 2019
John Mayer, Spectrum Center, Friday August 9th, 2019

In a literal sense, when John Mayer inserted the word “Charlotte” into his silky 2009 hit “Who Says” — “It’s been a long night in New York City / It’s been a long night in Charlotte too” — the statement wasn’t factual. Yet.

At that point during his Friday-night show at uptown’s Spectrum Center, just a few songs in, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter had so far only gotten around to unspooling one of the virtuosic, marathon-length guitar solos that are his signature. He was still just getting loosened up, for a journey through his vast catalog that would sprawl across two sets and three hours (or 2-1/2 hours, depending on how you’re counting; more on that in a minute).

It also was right around this point when he stopped to loosen up the crowd / pick on an individual fan / make that particular fan’s year.

“Occasionally, someone writes a sign for a show with so much writing on the front of it, that I can’t both perform the song and acknowledge the sign,” Mayer said, nodding at someone waving a sheet of poster board a dozen or so rows back in the floor section.

“By the way, I’m going to acknowledge the sign because I feel very bad for the people behind you. ... So I’m going to try something: I’m gonna try to both perform ‘Who Says’ and read the sign at the same time, to show you if there is such thing as distracted driving on stage.”

(Indeed, there were a whole mess of words on this woman’s sign. As it briefly flashed up on the big screen, I was able to make out “Thank you for sharing your soul. You —” before the video feed cut back to Mayer. There were at least three or four more sentences I missed.)

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John Mayer, Spectrum Center, Friday August 9th, 2019 Benjamin Robson

He then proceeded to spin through most of the first verse, slipping up only slightly — “Turn out the lights and the telephone” should have been “Turn off the lights and the telephone” — before cutting himself off and declaring, “Alright, I did it. I got it.”

“The sign says, ‘Please take my letter,’ but I don’t know how the letter could be longer than the sign. So I absolutely will take your letter. If you hand it up, I promise you I’ll read it.” After it was passed up and he set it down on the stage, he mused: “What if I open up the letter and all it says is, ‘Pretty cool sign’?”

It was a good for a chuckle, but he called it what it was — a “shaggy-dog story” — before concluding with: “Back to the music.”

And man, was the music he made all night divine.

As any fan of his is well aware by now, Mayer constructs his setlists for each individual concert he does seemingly from scratch.

Yes, you can expect him to return to certain wells — in addition to key mainstream hits like “No Such Thing” and “Waiting On the World to Change,” he routinely finds room for specific personal favorites like 2017’s almost-Stones-esque “Helpless” (which he opened with, and which featured a soulfully groovy two-minute guitar solo on his electric) and poetic 2009 deep cut “Edge of Desire” (which he closed his first set with).

But he never plays things in the exact same order, and he always sprinkles in stuff even hardcore fans might never have seen coming.

In Charlotte, for instance, he opened the night’s second set with a song I’m not ashamed to admit I had to use Google to identify: a stripped-down-to-just-him-and-his-acoustic version of “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” off Mayer’s 2012 album “Born and Raised.”

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John Mayer, Spectrum Center, Friday August 9th, 2019 Benjamin Robson

A little over an hour later, he opened his three-song encore with an acoustic cover of The Grateful Dead’s transcendent “Ripple,” as fans roared at the sight of a black-and-white image of Jerry Garcia cast onto the big screen. (This made me really wish I had gone to the Dead & Company concert he was a part of at PNC Music Pavilion eaerlier this summer.)

In terms of his best guitar solos of the night, I’d pick out three:

The first came during the 2017 ballad “Changing,” two-thirds of the way through the first set. Interestingly, I saw scores of concertgoers head up the stairs towards the bars and the bathrooms when this one started. I’m sorry to say that they missed not only an achingly beautiful rendition, but also a 3-minute-and-15-second-long that brought the ballad to an unexpected, astoundingly frenetic climax.

Second, the straight-up epic / nearly-four-minute-long tear he went off on after switching to an electric guitar on the fly halfway through 2012’s “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” deep into the second set; it had meandering, breezy feel, and was the aural equivalent of getting to watch a great illustrator freestyling with a pencil and a notepad just for fun.

Last but not least, two songs later — to finish off “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” — Mayer went more than two minutes on an electric solo that featured some of the most jaw-droppingly nimble finger work of the night.

Now, I have a couple of little gripes about the show, but neither has anything to do with Mayer’s musicianship, his voice (as good an instrument as his guitar), or his eight-member backing band (which I can’t imagine being any better; special shoutouts to guitarist David Ryan Harris, who slayed his abbreviated rendition of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” late in the show, and backup singers Tiffany Palmer and Carlos Rickets, who quite frankly outsang Mayer — by a fair amount — when they took brief turns in the spotlight at the end of “Gravity.”)

For one, all of Mayer’s guitar solos offer the perfect opportunity for the cameras and the giant video screen to give us an up-close view of his hands. Unfortunately, the show’s producers often insisted on a psychedelic filter that created a triple- or even quadruple-vision effect that did nothing but frustrate people like me, who wanted be able to appreciate his artistry as deeply as possible.

The only other quibble? While I realize a short intermission probably makes sense for everyone if the show is going to be 26 songs and 2-1/2 hours long, I thought 30 minutes was too long a break and took some wind out of the show’s sails.

Still, the second set was absolutely worth the wait (see my comments above, or the setlist below), and on the whole, it was an absolute pleasure to get to watch Mayer do his thing here for the second time in two years.

In fact, if I could have brought a sign for Mayer to read at the show Friday night, the message would have been short and sweet:

“Come back anytime.”

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John Mayer, Spectrum Center, Friday August 9th, 2019 Benjamin Robson

John Mayer’s setlist

First set

1. “Helpless”

2. “Love On the Weekend”

3. “Wildfire”

4. “Who Says”

5. “No Such Thing”

6. “I Don’t Trust Myself”

7. “Changing”

8. “Queen of California”

9. “I Guess I Just Feel Like”

10. “Edge of Desire”

Second set

11. “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”

12. “Your Body Is a Wonderland”

13. “Neon”

14. “Belief”

15. “Still Feel Like Your Man”

16. “Rosie”

17. “3x5”

18. “If I Ever Get Around to Living”

19. “The Beautiful Ones” (Prince cover by guitarist David Ryan Harris)

20. “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room”

21. “In the Blood”

22. “Waiting On the World to Change”

23. “Gravity”

Encore

24. “Ripple” (Grateful Dead cover)

25. “Born and Raised”

26. “New Light”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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