Sometimes, as a journalist, you approach an assignment with a hypothesis. Walking into Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on a warm Tuesday night in August to see John Mayer on his The Search for Everything World Tour, for instance, you might have the Connecticut native’s relationship with country music on your mind. In previous stops, he’d incorporated city-appropriate moments (like guest performer Jimmie Vaughan in Texas, a 2Pac “California Love” cover in Anaheim) – would he tap the Nashville community for some guest stars? His song “In The Blood” is getting country airplay, and earlier in the day he appeared on the Bobby Bones show. His lyrics lean sometimes more country than country itself, two of his albums had country elements. Perhaps, as a journalist, you’d be expecting some of these ties throughout the performance; evidence, maybe, that like Justin Timberlake or even Nelly, the artist is laying the groundwork for a country moment.
Sometimes, you’d be wrong. Mayer’s two-hour-and-fifteen-minute-set did address the question that’s occasionally hovered at Music City’s home genre outskirts: how country is John Mayer? The answer: a resounding ‘who gives a f*ck.’
The driving force behind Mayer’s show, and – it seems – the man himself is, unsurprisingly, music. Mayer grooved through five “chapters” through the course of the evening, sharing himself with the audience in acoustic, trio, and full band iterations. “Every time I pick up a guitar with Steve [Jordan] and Pino [Palladino] I come face to face with the music I loved as a kid,” Mayer said in a set-break video projected on the one giant screen backdropping the stage.
Mayer shone in all formats. The Trio let Mayer’s blues flag fly, replete with soul-stirring solos and soul-shaking jams. Full band moments like “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” were masterful, Mayer’s “Gentle On My Mind” tribute to the late Glen Campbell was stirring, and intimate acoustic offerings like “In Your Atmosphere” and “Free Fallin'” earned an angelic singalong. Everyone in Nashville can sing – Mayer joked at the beginning of the night about how most of the room probably had record deals – how intimidating it was playing to Chris Stapleton – rating his performance of the last song in the Bs.
It’s hard to say whether Nashville is especially enamored of Mayer’s musicality or whether he’s taught his crowds to listen, and listen good. But anyone in the room could probably tell you the names of at least half of the band before he introduced them, could probably sing every solo from the records. A Steve Jordan drum solo, a solo line from backing vocalist Tiffany Palmer, an especially tight groove: these are as integral to the appeal as the singer himself, and the crowd responded. Though they were vocal – and singing – throughout the evening, Mayer had full command: when he took to a piano for his “Epilogue,” a one-song encore on an all-white stage with “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me,” the room was pin-drop quiet, listening.
Mayer is older now – and, as he keeps having to remind media, wiser. Yes, he’s had some dumb moments (“My Stupid Mouth” auto-plays if you think the phrase “sexual napalm”), but he repented on Born and Raised (“Shadow Days”). He sought moving on on Paradise Valley (“Waitin’ On The Day”). And he’s still learning: he “may be old and [he] may be young, but [he] is not done changing” (The Search for Everything). His Twitter bio very self-awarely reads “guitarist for John Mayer.” It’s a narrative he still grapples with, something that Mayer, who has for several years been living on a ranch in Montana, addressed Tuesday night. “Being a cocky bastard is a booster rocket to getting out of your town where people tell you you’ll never make it,” he said mid-show, addressing his former brashness and thanking fans for his growth. “I wasn’t as smart or as deep as you guys have made me now.”
Mayer is seasoned now. He’s not quite as ostentatious as former days – Tuesday found him dressed in an oversized t-shirt, jeans, and large boots (and, yes, a large watch from his extensive collection.) He doesn’t talk too much, and though he still speaks with a swaggering polish when he does, it’s less calculated: at one point he lets himself ramble about a space metaphor he’s constructed and eating space food.
What he does is let himself play. There’s something cathartic about his bluesy grooves, frenetic jams, and quiet crooning that awakens something in the listener – sort of like going to therapy and hitting something repressed, getting in a good cry. He launched into the full-band slow groove of “Gravity,” set to a starry, palm-tree laden backdrop – as the dramatic build ended and Mayer delivered the breathy first word, the crowd erupted even though they knew it was coming, knew he bleeds blues, knew how great his voice had been all night.
“I’m in orbit,” Mayer said earlier. Yes sir.