A friend of mine who I met when I first started university introduced me to John Mayer. As I sat on the bed in a halls room much more personalised than my own and studied my surroundings (a Devonshire flag sticks in my mind) and tried to take in the situation, my friend put on a CD. Earlier on that afternoon I had spoken of the fact that John Mayall was playing at the Arts Centre. Mayall has often been referred to as the Godfather of British blues, so many of Britains legendary guitarists have passed through his band, the Bluesbreakers at the seminal stages of their careers. As I mentioned Mayall's name, my friend questioned me,
"No, John Mayall"
"Oh I thought you said John Mayer. I LOVE John Mayer"
To distinguish any confusion relating to the two artists, a Mayer album was duly played. I think it may have been Room for Squares although if I'm honest I can't say it made much of an impression on me. It may have been because my mind was on other matters, it may have been because my musical tastes then were less mature than they are now or it may just have been because it took one of Mayer's other albums to make me appreciate his full repertoire of work in its own right. To be honest, its probably all three of those things and maybe a bit more.
Many months later it came to my attention that John Mayer's latest album, Continuum, contained a cover of one of my all-time favourite songs, Bold As Love. The title track from Hendrix's second album is one of those tracks that I feel is best listened to loud and with eyes closed. It sits on a playlist in my iTunes titled 'powerful' because it is simply that. Some songs are powerful through lyrics, others through structure and others still through their feeling. Bold As Love has all three, but it is the feeling that is the most powerful element for me. It opens with a staccato A chord which immediately wakes up the listener; jolts your attention into gear. The tune then segues into a mellow rhythm, as the lyrics portray someone grappling with the frustrations of love, its all encompassing subsidiary emotions - anger, jealousy, acceptance, fear - and how these emotions can take over and restrain him from the one he really wants to show: Love. The music builds up in layers before a guitar solo takes over. Being Hendrix, the solo is strong, the guitar itself almost cuts through the rest of the music and manages to capture almost perfectly the essence of the battle between his emotions before reaching an ultimately moving climax. Words cannot do it justice, as much as I have tried, but you need to hear it to feel it. Just remember: loud and eyes closed.
Hendrix is often covered, rarely (if ever) succesfully but I had heard a snippet of Mayer's version on the iTunes store and it intrigued me. It sounded weaker than Hendrix's but had a feel that it was true to the original.
I ended up downloading the entire Continuum album for one track and, yes, Bold As Love was indeed true to the feeling of the originial. Yes, it was also much weaker than Hendrix's original but then again Mayer is a softer musician. It is a cover well suited to its audience, who may not even have all too much experience with blues-rock let along Hendrix and admirably portrayed its merits and that of his own ability.
It took some time to venture from the one track to listening to the rest of the album. For some reason, my initial experience of Mayer had left me with a bad impression of him and I was somewhat reluctant to give him a second chance. I forget how I came to listen to the album in its entirety, whether by chance or choice but I'm glad I did.
More often than not when approaching a new album, be it from a reccomendation or just a new release, you seek out the top tracks on the album. These are the tracks which define the album or the artist. The possible singles. The classics. All too often there are only a handful of these tracks and the rest are 'filler'. Continuum, much as with Axis: Bold As Love, is one of those rare finds where every track is a gem. I speak only for myself but I can honestly say that I can put the whole album on start to finish and not get bored at any point.
Waiting on the World to Change kicks off proceedings with a catchy drum beat and lyrics with a point - deriding the apathetic society we live in and raising the point of some of society's problems such as lack of accountability and accessibility of those who lead us, military conflict and the questionable independence of our media.
The album paints a picture, it is clear to me now through learning more about the path of his career, of an artist who has now reached a point in his career where things are beginning to change. Some of these changes are self imposed such as the direction in which he is taking his music and some are forced upon him such as the expression in Vultures, where he sings of a frustration of the constant media attention that comes with being a high list celebrity in America.
After warming to the comfortable tones of his work in the studio I set out in search of something more raw, something with a bit of an edge, more guitar solos. I wanted less of the polished emotion found in the studio works such as Slow Dancing in a Burning Room and In Repair and more of the natural feelings that come with a live set. iTunes provided me with TRY! by the John Mayer Trio and I got what I wanted.
The album write up on iTunes asked "What got into John Mayer?" before charting the progress of his career from a 'dreamy, mellow pop' artist to a hard hitting blue-rock musician keen on 'jam band rock' and willing to tackle (and pull off) covers of Hendrix and Ray Charles.
The funky, punchy opening track, 'Who Did You Think I Was?' gives an immediate indication that this is certainly not the soft-pop love song writer of even Continuum let alone his earlier work. The song, along with the rest of the album has a drive and energy about it that suggests perhaps we are starting to see the real John Mayer coming through and begining to express himself.
The Trio is a simple blues band consisting of John on vocals and guitar, former Eric Clapton and Phil Collins bassist Pino Palladino and ex-Blues Brothers drummer Steve Jordan. Mayer formed the trio to try and explore new directions and meet new challenges with his music. (Or should I say 'to TRY! and explore...'?) Through touring with the Trio and the subsequent live album Mayer has proved to the world that he is not to be underestimated as a guitarist in his own right. TRY! features two of his earlier works, from his debut album Heavier Things, along with a number of new tracks. The new tracks are still unmistakeably Mayer but at the same time unrecognisable from his earlier work. A three piece band gives him responsibility as a musician; he has no backing singers, no rhythm guitarists, no keyboard player. Mayer seems to thrive on this and uses it to express himself musically by working off the platform laid down by such a strong drum and bass section to churn out track after track of good, solid blues.
So what of this 'dreamy, mellow pop'? Continuum is an album of a man in transition. It sits neatly and comfortably in 'soft and sensitive' and 'rough and ready' to make what is, in my mind his best all-round performance. Yet it is his earlier work, Heavier Things and Room For Squares, which were the making of the man. It is impossible to fully appreciate his later work without first seeing from where he came.
Mayer dresses up his music on Heavier Things to make it appealing to a wider audience. Without doubt he is not doing this solely for opportunistic reasons, he is very comfortable with playing the mellow laid-back sensitive tunes which made him famous and he makes no secret of his musical background. Yet even then, he made no secret of his musical ambitions either by using a front cover display just himself brandishing an electric guitar hanging from his neck. This shows that, underneath the poppy-easy listening exterior of gentle tracks like Clarity and sensitive slow numbers such as Daughters, Mayer considers himself first and foremost a guitarist.
Bands such as McFly and Busted acquired acclaim for bringing guitar-based music into the mainstream. The Darkness made rock 'cool' again with I Believe in a Thing Called Love. With tracks such as Bigger Than My Body and Something's Missing, John Mayer did similar things to the American market, but kept the integrity of his music at the same time. Arguably, with strong country, rock and blues connections America never really lost touch with solid guitar/bass/drums based music but nevertheless it is an achievement of some note to bring them into the mainstream as well as John Mayer has managed.
If Heavier Things is baby-soft-Mayer then Room for Squares is adolescent-Mayer with bum-fluff stubble grappling with a heap of emotions and feelings and experiences. No Such Thing, the opening track is a quick moving 'strummy' track with much more of a focus on the 'quality not quantity' theory when it comes to layers and instruments while 3x5 shows a more cynical emotional quality that demonstrates an increased maturity in his lyrics as he bemoans the benefit of experiencing life through the viewfinder of a camera over 'seeing the world through both of his eyes'.
On a romantic level, he keeps true to form and appears to be writing now with more purpose than wandering sentiment. This is somewhat paradoxically expressed mostly through the aching lyrics of Love Song for No One.
Intentionally or not (and I can't help but feel that someone as clever and talented as John Mayer with as much of a passion for the Blues as he evidently has probably means to do so) Mayer has introduced a whole new audience of pop-seekers to what I rather pretentiously call 'real' music. His studio work is full of integrity not just through hsi lyrics but through the musical basis of his work. So many singers carry their music on their voice and forge commendable careers out of it. Mayer has a palatable voice but it is his lyrics and playing that really whets your appetite and leaves you wanted course after course. At his live shows he goes one better, as evidenced by collections such as Any Given Thursday and Live in New York, where he garnishes the main course of his pop work with guitar fills and applies a healthy dressing of blues riffs. I hope, as I'm sure he does too, that those who listen to his work will begin to take interest in more traditional blues work on the basis of familiarity.
I sit here, writing this, with my latest Mayer acquisition playing on the other side of my laptop. Across the room, in 40 inch high definition I have Where The Light Is, a live DVD which encapsulates what he himself calls 'all three incarnations of John Mayer'. I have to say, I'm in awe. The DVD is more than just a music DVD, it is a documentary film directed by Danny Clinch. It catalogues Mayer's emotions in between sets, his frustrations with the attention he has from the papparazi and a sneaky look at the professional life of Mr Mayer all interspersed with Mayer's three-part concert at the Nokia Theatre in L.A.
The show opens with a solitary John Mayer sitting on stage playing acoustic guitar in a five song acoustic set that consists of favourites such as Neon and Daughters and finishes with a gentle cover of Tom Petty's Free Fallin'. John jokes after his first song of how much of a pleasure it is to open for himself, alluding to what it is like to be a minor act supporting the headline act. In this segment he protrays a conversation he (as the support act) claims to have had with himself (as the headline act) back stage. These comments become all the more significant when he later admits that his three performances each felt like three different bands, an achievement he is quite proud of, and that in one night he experienced the emotions of three different acts. He later claimed that at times during this initial set he felt he was struggling to keep the crowd.
The second set was the John Mayer Trio who provided the crowd with the musical delights of TRY! and even more. It is with the Trio that Mayer really has the opportunity to show of his talent. The freedom with which he can roll into blues licks and intertwine them with a soft melody is quite remarkable. In my mind there are a very small number of white men who have managed to capture the essence of the blues, for it is an essentially black genre being born out of the pain and suffering of the slave communities in America. Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan spring to mind as two names who have come close and Mayer here shows that he has the talent to push for recognition with the best.
During the interviews, Mayer admits that he feels his most relaxed and comfortable playing his pop work but that he also thrives on stepping outside his comfort zone with the Trio and stepping into the unknown. This is essentially what being a real blues musician is about, not knowing what is going to happen when you step out on stage and pick up your instrument. It is quite evident during the Trio's set that Mayer is still finding his feet in this genre and he admits that the band have not played together enough to have that comfort and confidence of knowing each other's music inside out. That said, I have never seen or heard any other guitarist cover Hendrix so accurately, effortlessly and uniquely as John Mayer does with the Trio. A bold statement it may be but on this showing he may just have the talent that, if focussed effectively and with the right people, could match that of Hendrix. He's not there yet and he may never get there but it's a very exciting prospect. Indeed, the way he removed his guitar at the end of his set, held it vertically in one hand and played one handed letting the neck slide gently through his grip as he moved down the fretboard convincingly enough for it to not be noticeable on the audio CD suggests a flamboyance that only the greats possess.
For all his talent on display when playing scorching blue numbers filled with every single trick in the book, it is arguably not until the third set begins that the true genius of the man shows through - with his pop work. The very music which failed to inspire me two years ago sitting in my friend's room is now the music which grabs my attention more than any other. The hors d'œuvre of the Acoustic set was an ample warm up to the central show of talent, the main course with the Trio but it is the light, refreshing dessert which I'm now looking forward to. Mayer mixes emotion with light tunes and an exceptional display of guitar playing to bring the house alive with hits such as Waiting on the World to Change, Why Georgia and Gravity. This is his showcase, his carefully constructed masterpieces. In his dressing room in between the second and final sets, Mayer talks of how he felt that with the Trio he was trying to upstage the 'Main Act' but sitting there, as the main act due to go on he feels comfortable being able to think "At least I've got the hits to fall back on." It really is a comfort to know that, for all the showcasing of the Trio, you have the tried and tested yet to come.
Such is the genius of the man that, as I have no almost reached full circle, I have been turned from a musical blues purist disinterested in the soft lyrics and easy melodies of Heavier Things and Room for squares into a die hard Mayer fan. Not a John Mayer Trio fan. Not a fan of Continuum. Not a fan of Mayer's Hendrix covers. I am a fan of John Mayer: past, present and future.
I have documented his work here not in the most obvious chronological order but the order in which I discovered it. His works are so intelligently and masterfully constructed and evolved that you could probably pick up the Mayer experience at any point in his career and appreciate all aspects of music, whatever works best for you.