At one point midway through his set Saturday night at Toyota Center, John Mayer told us to all imagine that we were watching VH-1 Classic so he could adequately interpolate Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" into his new "Half Of My Heart" with less guilt involved. A little known fact about the Journey song is that there is in fact no such thing as South Detroit; in effect, South Detroit is Windsor, Ontario, Canada. But you try explaining that to a "Whoo!"-screaming girl while Mayer is onstage making sex faces at his guitar. For the rest of the night, that audience-performer exchange made us wonder exactly what the future holds for an artist like John Mayer when his female fans grow up and move on. Will he have his own VH-1 Classic moment in two decades, when older gals will sing "No Such Thing" at the top of their lungs folding clothes on the couch or will he go the way of say, Christopher Cross, and become another pop-culture punchline? Personally, we are aiming for Dan Fogelberg. For him, not us.
The crowd on Saturday was somewhat sedated, and sadly, we have seen a Mayer throng before to be able to compare. Our secret shame is that we saw Mayer live before two years ago (chicks, man) and that crowd was infinitely more jazzed on the man than they were Saturday night. And it's not like he's touring behind some clunker of an album, seeing that plenty of people applauded November's Battle Studies as a more introspective outing than they expected. It's a good John Mayer album by the standards of his career, but not a great album in the truest sense of the term. He makes good John Mayer music. But what will happen down the line? We boiled down the four tenets of the attraction to Mayer over the course of the night. First off, he's an attractive man at least by the standards of his target female audience. Floppy hair, gangly gait, and he seems like he wouldn't go under the shirt unless you let him, that kind of thing. And then there's that second tenet: Inherent safety. But during the Playboy interview and the ensuing fracas he betrayed that by being too open and perhaps punting whatever progress he had made over the past decade off into the ditch with other erstwhile '00s casualties. No. 3 would be having the ability to wrangle an ax, synthetic "bad boy" aesthetic and whatnot. Cleaned-up whitey blues won't offend anyone under 70 and you can rock it with Mom in the car, who herself probably dug a few late-period Steve Winwood songs in her time. And once again, there's the safety. The fourth thing is the thing that gets all artists like Mayer over on their target: A sense of vulnerability. You wanna rub and pat his back and tell him that "some girls are just heartless" so he can give you that hangdog stare, which opens the door to breakfast tacos and movie-night cuddles. He's not a manipulator; he's just working on a higher plane that other guys haven't mastered the art of yet. And the thing is, Mayer knows all of this.
Opening with "Heartbreak Warfare" from Studies, he set the tone for the rest of the evening. He's hurt and defanged at this point, humbled by how quickly the media turned on him. It's like finally getting the mother of all speeding tickets after years of warping through school zones and driving home drunk every night. The new material is forlorn, and his current public image debacle fits in well with its lyrical tone. He'll survive the fallout of telling us about his "David Duke cock," we assure you. People have said way worse in the past 50 years of rock and roll, and it's not like Mayer covered a Charles Manson song or accidentally killed a dude from Hanoi Rocks. The music industry is quick to forgive. For now, he's like a kid that has been grounded and confined to his bedroom with only a closet full of guitars and 20,000 chicks to keep him company every night. Tough life. The second song in the set, his take on Robert Johnson's "Crossroads", reminds us of what he actually can do when all the idol trappings fall away. At his core - and aside from the young-adult-contemporary flim-flam - he is a decent guitarist. He may not be Clapton up there, but at least he's not bastardizing Johnson's blues standard like some people do. The middle of the set was decorated with all the Mayer hallmarks: The playboy guilt of "Assassin"; new-girl guilt "Comfortable" and WASP guilt of "Waiting On the World To Change."
In essence, he covered four songs, if you count the supposed snippet of Archie Bell's "Tighten Up" we thought we heard: Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'," Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" and the Journey jag. The Bell cover may have come when Spearhead's Michael Franti hit the stage to scat, but we instinctually mentally checked out for that and starting looking at our fantasy-baseball draft options on our phone for the duration. It's also a known fact that most American girls aged 18 to 34 believe that the Petty and Journey songs were written, note for note, specifically about them. No lie. The night closed with the suburban stoner anthem "Who Says," and the bubble-bath calm of "Gravity." You can just see someone coming home and lighting a few Yankee candles and just tearing into some relaxation while Mayer talks about gravity getting the hell away from him. At its heart, Mayer's music doesn't raise your blood pressure and make you wanna rip someone's face off like a wolverine. It's like Xanax, sweet calming aural Xanax. It's sedating and it does its job, which you can't fault it for. Fourteen songs went by faster than we would have imagined, and it seems like the stage is the only place he can escape at this point, with the controversy just now dying down. He didn't apologize, like he has been wont to do at other stops on this tour, but he doesn't need to. This isn't an apology tour; it's just a tour that somehow became an excuse to make apologies.
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Set list Heartbreak Warfare Crossroads (Robert Johnson cover) Vultures Something's Missing Perfectly Lonely Assassin Comfortable Free Fallin' (Tom Petty cover) Waiting On The World To Change (With Michael Franti Freestyle) Ain't No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover) Bigger Than My Body Half of My Heart Don't Stop Believing (Journey cover) Why Georgia Encore Who Says Gravity