John Mayer at the Allstate Arena, 2003
By Mark Guarino
Thanks to Kiss, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, U2 and others, the arena rock show has a few principles of scope and artistry that need adhering to. John Mayer fits none of them.
Mayer played the Allstate Arena Friday, a booking about accommodating commercial demand and nothing else. Having Mayer play an arena was like booking the Scrabble Championships at Madison Square Garden.
Mayer’s music permeates the airwaves these days thanks to a few successful soft rock singles and a cherubic demeanor perfect for teenage and college-aged women who have weaned themselves off the Backstreet Boys these last couple of years.
Mayer cut his teeth playing clubs and coffeehouses in Atlanta before signing to Aware Records, the Chicago-based label responsible for the successes of other non-threatening radio fare like Train and Five for Fighting. Aware’s relationship with Columbia Records helped make Mayer a radio hitmaker. With “Heavier Things” (Aware/Columbia), a second major label album, he is being rushed into arenas without a second thought.
Not that he belonged there. Mayer’s success is often aligned with other new twentysomething singer-songwriters like Norah Jones and Michelle Branch. But Jones — the Grammy winner who has sold a considerable amount more albums than Mayer — is wise enough to still play theatres where her mellow piano pop feels more at home.
Backed by a four-piece band and two horns, Mayer played almost two hours. “I’m far too relaxed to be playing in front of this many people,” he said. Aside from some “Seinfeld”-like song introductions that riffed on holiday shopping and what he wants for Christmas, Mayer stuck to a deadened pace. His thin songbook had to fit a headlining bill, which meant stretching songs out with intermittent soloing and forced segments that did not fit together organically. His biggest hit, “Your Body Is a Wonderland” — on record a breezy and simple pop tune — was transformed into a wandering jam with no drive except to log time.
Trained at the Berklee School of Music, the 26-year-old has the technique but his playing never transcended into a viable, emotional connection with the audience. The solo acoustic encore of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “You’re Gonna Miss Me Baby” was note perfect but with little fire.
While the organ and horns introduced a heavy dose of midnight soul midway through the set where you could easily imagine Al Green dropping to his knees and shrieking, Mayer was unwavering. Despite the soul revue setting, his guitar playing meandered as if trying to figure out what the fuss