NEW YORK — Some artists can look cool standing in front of thousands of people with only a guitar to shield their bared souls. Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carrabba, Ryan Adams and even Michelle Branch can pull it off with telling facial expressions, nuanced gestures and even some reserved body grooving.
John Mayer could stand to take some notes from them.
Mayer's 6-foot-3-inch frame is inherently gawky. The way he holds his guitar, strapped high with the neck at a perfect 45-degree angle, is diametrically opposed to the low-slung style favored by most people concerned with exuding an air of cool. And where Elvis had his curled upper-lip sneer and Gwen Stefani's pouting lips lavish her words with sensuality, Mayer's mouth contorts awkwardly when he sings, as if he were overdubbed for a foreign film.
And one more thing — he dances like my dad.
None of that mattered Monday at Madison Square Garden during one of the few remaining shows of Mayer's North American tour in support of his latest album, Heavier Things. Instead of trying to become something he's not, Mayer relied on his knack for spinning his dorky demeanor off as endearing. Add to that fact his ability to play guitar like all get-out and he could have played in a burlap sack with his back to the audience and not many would have minded. After all, how many people faulted Jimi Hendrix for playing his guitar upside-down?
On a relatively bare stage — save for two risers that supported the keyboardist and drummer — Mayer was dwarfed by the enormity of the famed venue whose vastness absorbed many of the subtleties that make his guitar melodies so striking. Fans were left instead to focus on his plucky blues-based soloing, which presented him as an accomplished player beyond his years.
He opened his set with "Clarity," the first song off the new album. Each time he stepped away from the mic to bust into his reserved, head-bobbing shuffle was met with deafening screams from the crowd of mostly teenage girls. A trumpet-and-sax horn "section" provided the music with its warm, soulful tones.
Mayer's two-hour set covered 15 of the 24 songs from his new album and its predecessor, 2001's Room for Squares, most of which were group sing-alongs that further obscured the art from the artist. Whether his adoring public was considerate enough to forgo singing the soft songs or their mimicry of Mayer's hushed whispers evaporated in the ether, you could almost hear tears stream down adolescent cheeks while Mayer crooned "Come Back to Bed," "Back to You" and "Wheel."
He showed his appreciation for New York before launching into that jolt of maturity, "City Love." Efficiency, he said, was the part that made New York the best city in the world. Other places, people would stop him on the street, ask if he was really who he was, then fumble around taking pictures — one for themselves and one for their cousin back home.
New York is different. Its residents wouldn't take up so much time and create such a scene. They simply say what's on their mind. "Hey, John, I like ya songs!" is all Mayer might hear crossing Broadway.
The same kind of streamlined compliment could be said of his concert. Wearing a black, buttoned-down shirt and a head of hair that could use a comb and a cut, Mayer didn't look much different from his fans. No fancy lights or fanfare took away from the potency of his songwriting and performance. He laid his tunes bare, without having to mask inadequacies with pomp, circumstance or swagger.
A dance lesson never hurt anybody, though.
John Mayer's set list:
- "No Such Thing"
- "My Stupid Mouth"
- "City Love"
- "Bigger Than My Body"
- "Something's Missing"
- "Back to You"
- "Only Heart"
- "Come Back to Bed"
- "Your Body Is a Wonderland"
- "Why Georgia"
- "St. Patrick's Day"
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.