FOR MOST JOHN MAYER LOYALISTS, his live album Where the Light Is, recorded in 2007 but released in 2008, symbolizes the pinnacle of the musician’s career. He was in the midst of touring Continuum, his masterpiece of a modern blues album that remains his greatest achievement, and was able to perfectly distill his finest attributes into a two-hour runtime. The concert was sectioned into one part sensitive acoustic singer-songwriter, one part blistering blues John Mayer Trio and one part ambitious stage show eight-person band.
Fast forward nearly 10 years and Mayer has finally expanded the format into a full tour, following countless requests from fans to do so. Named after his just released seventh album, The Search for Everything, the tour represents Mayer’s second comeback attempt in recent years after a widely publicized self-implosion of celebrity in 2010.
The first, which saw Mayer growing his hair out, moving to Montana and becoming a folk musician on 2012’s Born and Raised and 2013’s Paradise Valley, was mired in initial vocal health issues and never took off the way his previous outputs had, despite Born and Raised being one of his most formidable records. So it only made sense Mayer would recalibrate and get in touch with his blues-pop habits again.
MAYER HAS ALWAYS BEEN MOST RECOGNIZED for his skills onstage than on record. Even people who don’t like his songs will admit he’s a generational talent with a guitar, and the Search for Everything Tour is one of the most impressive he has ever put on. As usual for Mayer, the setlist changes nightly and draws heavily from Continuum and whatever new release he has out, which was the case last Friday night at the Forum.
But Los Angeles in particular is a special place to see John Mayer live. It’s where he’s played some of the best shows of his career, including Where the Light Is and regular surprise drop-ins at Hotel Café, it’s where he’s made most of his records, it’s the city he calls home, and it was instrumental at the start of his career. He tweeted out earlier in the day how hard of a setlist this night’s was to write.
“I first came to Los Angeles in 2000. L.A. is a wonderful home for heartbreak. There’s no better place,” Mayer said at one point, before joking about hung-over brunches and how there’s also no better place to talk about one person for four hours. He would later get serious again to introduce the night’s biggest surprise.
“L.A. welcomed me, but it also intimidated me because it was very high-grade music. It was the kind of music I wanted to make, but as of that date, and perhaps even still as of today, I was not able to create it,” Mayer said. “It wafted in the air as this thing I could aspire to try and grab as a songwriter. I thought, what an awesome opportunity to show you what this music is, and the person who wrote it and moved me so much, and continues to move me. He’s one of the best songwriters. Please welcome my friend, which is awesome to say, Mr. Ryan Adams to the stage.”
With that, Mayer and Adams performed a lovely blues rendition of Adams’ early breakout song “Come Pick Me Up.” The two have been going back and forth on Twitter all year, in addition to sharing similar musical sensibilities, so it’s no shock they have quickly become fast friends. Hopefully more collaborations are in their future.
Another highlight of the evening included a rare appearance of “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” which Mayer teased out on a 12-string acoustic as an intro into the Wes Anderson-esque “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test.” It was only the third time the track has been played since 2008, according to setlist.fm.
Of course the extended jam band sessions were flawless as well, of which there were several. Longer interludes on cuts like “Moving On and Getting Over” and “Changing” showed how improved the new material is in the live setting, while seeing the Trio back in action after all these years was nothing short of incredible. Which leads into the greatest critique of the tour. It’s too short.
THE SET LASTED TWO HOURS AND 15 MINUTES, slightly longer than the typical two hours Mayer has done on previous outings, but still not long enough to serve as the grand career statement he was probably hoping after. Eric Church is going for three hours on his recent run and there’s no reason why Mayer can’t do something similar, especially since the current allotted time allows for only 20 or so selections.
He’s got the songs. His current live band is maybe the most talented he’s ever had. He’s played three-plus hour epics with Dead & Company, so he’s got the stamina. If he wants to lay claim once and for all as the best guitarist of his generation, it’s the next logical step.
Take, for instance, the Trio. There’s been a lot of buildup for their reunion after all these years, there was even a hype video of interviews played before they came on, but they were barely onstage for 15 minutes. The time was electric, without question, and worth it for even that short of a duration. Mayer in gritty blues-rock mode is the best version of Mayer and shows just what a guitar god he is.
“The best thing about playing with Steve and Pino is I have no idea what the next thing that’s going to come out of my guitar will be. I have no idea,” he said before ripping into a fierce version of the blues classic “Crossroads.” But no matter how you slice it, only 15 minutes of the Trio lobbing lightening bolts from atop Mount Olympus is disappointing.
Expanding the set would also alleviate how Mayer has ignored large swaths of his discography ever since he started touring again on the Born and Raised Tour. Whether it’s a time thing or he doesn’t relate to the songs as much anymore, Mayer hardly touches anything from his first two albums, barring a small handful. It’s especially frustrating in regards to Heavier Things, his most underrated and overlooked album now, which is rarely seen live outside of “Daughters” and an occasional emergence of “Wheel.” But it also stands true for his other non-Continuum records.
“I have a catalogue of music that is far too vast to ever fit in one set,” Mayer said during a Facebook Live chat earlier this month. “I have an audience now that is there for only the reason of loving the music and getting into it. I’m not standard issue popular anymore, which I love. Standard issue popular made me uncomfortable. Now everyone who is in the room is there because they love this music top-to-bottom. That takes a lot of nerves away.”
EMBRACING MORE OF THE DEEP CUT SPONTANEITY that makes every Springsteen or Pearl Jam show a one-night only event would be a nice challenge for Mayer at this stage in his career, which judging by those comments he appears to at least somewhat recognize. There’s nothing holding him back anymore. He’s free to do whatever he wants now, like working out how to apply the newly developed philosophy to his live performance.
“I understand I’m not there to win anybody or prove anything to anybody. I’ve been taking the easier vibe up onstage with me and I’m not looking to knock people out,” he said during the same Facebook chat. “See, when you’re younger and you want to make a name for yourself, you’re there for knockouts. You’re there for KOs. And that’s nerve-wracking because you won’t ever know that you did it.
“But for me, with love to the Grateful Dead community, I was instructed how to interact with a crowd and interact with your own music in a way that’s so much more easygoing than the concept of must destroy. We’re done with that. It’s really good in your 20s and early 30s, but I’m not here to destroy anymore. I’m here to have a great time. It’s not so much coming up through the floor and smoke’s coming out. It’s more like walking on the stage and being like, ‘Let’s make music.’”
Mayer’s last appearance at the Forum was New Year’s Eve 2015 with Dead & Company and featured some of the most impressive musicianship you will ever see in a live setting. He’s not lying when he says some of that laidback feeling has carried over into his own presentation.
There were no behind-the-head or on-the-floor guitar theatrics like there has been in the past, and even the jam sessions seemed to be a little more naturally flowing this time. As his live band gets more in the groove of playing together, they’re only a month into it so far, the experience should only grow. It’s a shame the resourcefulness didn’t carry over to the same degree on The Search for Everything, the album.
THE SEARCH FOR EVERYTHING is a perfectly pleasant and adequate album. It’s got some catchy pop songs, like the singles “Love on the Weekend” and “Still Feel Like You’re Man.” “Helpless” is the best blues rocker Mayer has written since Continuum. “Never on the Day You Leave,” “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” and “In the Blood” are as emotionally resonant as ever, although the production nearly ruins the latter. But considering he did the record with the same crew from Continuum, the results fail to live up to its destination’s possibility.
For starters, the rollout and marketing strategy of the release itself was incredibly confusing and changed multiple times. So what we ended up with was two four-song waves, with more waves to come later this year according to Mayer, which were then rolled into the full-length with an additional four songs.
The main problem is a third of the album now—“Emoji of a Wave,” “Changing,” “Roll It on Home” and the instrumental theme—has little business all making the final cut of a 12-track record. Each is a decent song on its own and would have been fine as EP tracks, but the way they work with the album as a whole brings everything down. For someone who is supposedly sitting on hundreds of unreleased songs, it’s hard to believe Mayer couldn’t find other selections that were a stronger fit to tie the concept together.
It brings to mind something else Mayer said towards the end of the show: “I want to say thank you specifically to all of you for giving me the freedom to make music that is not judged against any other music but music of my own catalogue. That’s a freedom that people don’t get. You’ve given me the artistic freedom to do whatever comes to my mind and my heart without ever reconciling what people might think about it.
“I only care about you guys and if you relate. I just want you to relate. That’s all I live for, is someone going, ‘Dude, me too. Don’t even worry about it.’ Because I hate the idea that I have any feelings that no one else has. It screws me up.”
It’s what every artist wants, to be judged based solely on your merits and to be liked accordingly. But the 39-year-old has already accomplished so much and written so many good songs, it’s also harder for him to live up to or beat that bar every time out.
With that in mind, it’s tough not to view The Search for Everything as Mayer’s second or third weakest record overall, depending on how you think Battle Studies has held up. It is a definite upgrade over Paradise Valley, and rest assured, Mr. Mayer, it is a very relatable breakup album. Yet it doesn’t fulfill the greatness lurking inside that has often gone untapped.
WHILE HE MAY NEVER WRITE ANOTHER CONTINUUM, there’s little reason to doubt Mayer will capably surpass The Search for Everything on whatever its follow-up turns out to be. Mayer seems to be more comfortable with himself as both an artist and someone in the spotlight now than ever before, and the results are sure to be creatively inspiring.
Certainly this tour is an example, even if not totally all-encompassing, and should not be missed by longtime fans that have stuck around or new devotees discovering him live for the first time. For Mayer, however, who closes each night performing solo on the piano before exiting through a door that magically appears in the white backdrop, Truman Show style, the search continues.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist