Late in the evening, John Mayer leveled with us. He described to the comfortably full American Airlines Center an unhurried dinner with a companion whose presence soothes and with whom everything feels so relaxed and easy that, before you know it, dessert has arrived: “That’s what this feels like,” the 41-year-old singer-songwriter said Thursday night. “Thank you for making it feel so comfortable.”
Nearly to the exclusion of all else, comfort is Mayer’s chief concern, a creative trait continually evident throughout his two-hour performance Thursday. He’s quick with a wisecrack and unconcerned with seeming like a dork (how else to explain the willingness to croon the ad jingle for the 1980s toy My Buddy?), making him, at all times, like someone who is never less than situated in his own skin.
Let me be quick to say: I come not to bury comfort, but to praise it, and Mayer’s brand of breezy, in particular, is often deceptive. Certainly, the faithful, fulsome fans gathered around me in the darkness, shrieking at the opening notes of each song (“Why Georgia,” all these years later, still brings ‘em to their feet) and singing along as if they were in the shower, were all piled into the arena for nothing less than an extended bout of relatively mindless joy.
The affinity was mutual. “There’s something about these Texas shows,” Mayer mused, name-checking long-ago gigs at Gypsy Tea Room and Trees. “There’s something about these shows that feels like home, and I’m not just saying that. You always turn up, having a certain energy. You know what you do, and thank you for doing it.”
Working with a razor-sharp eight-piece band (guitarists Isaiah Sharkey and David Ryan Harris, bassist Pino Palladino, drummer Aaron Sterling, percussionist Aaron Draper, keyboardist Jamie Muhoberac and backing vocalists Tiffany Palmer and Carlos Ricketts), Mayer made his first solo appearance in Dallas in two years seem like a pleasure cruise, with the occasional detour into slightly choppier waters.
(Mayer is making Dallas something of a second home in 2019. After a July stop with Dead and Company and Thursday’s appearance, he’ll be back in two weeks to perform at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.)
Mayer has, in the course of his two-decade career, amassed no shortage of detractors for whom his name and his music are simple, glib shorthand for prepackaged pop pabulum. But to dismiss him so easily (I mean, yes, “Daughters” was probably spun just a bit too often on radio) is to overlook the depth of his art.
The smooth surfaces, stained with pop and rock and blues and jazz, captivate and keep listeners coming back for more, but the sharply observed lyrics are the jagged hooks that snag you and leave lingering marks.
“It’s been a long time since 22,” he sang Thursday, during the wistful, mid-tempo shuffle “Who Says,” a song he introduced as his “best friend.” It reads like a fluffy throwaway, but Mayer imbues the line with an aching weight that haunts. “When you trust your television, what you get is what you got,” he spat in “Waiting on the World to Change,” a tune released 13 years ago but which nevertheless feels queasily relevant today.
His Grammy-winning catalog, now stretching across seven studio albums and 20 years, is elastic enough to encompass a range of moods and styles (the simmering blues of “Moving On and Getting Over,” the sultry fire of “Gravity,” the heartrending “Stop This Train,” the elegiac “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967”) while taking care to never lose sight of the formidable musicianship at the center of it all.
Time and again Thursday, Mayer would uncork a solo — his long fingers bending the strings of his electric or acoustic guitar in loving close-up on the enormous video screen, dwarfing the otherwise unremarkably dressed stage — stopping both time and your breath.
While his own theatrics would often pull the room’s focus effortlessly to his fretboard, Mayer was also a generous bandleader, frequently ceding the spotlight to his collaborators. Harris delivered a spine-tingling reading of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones,” while Palmer and Ricketts, superb throughout, were electrifying during an interpolation of Buddy Guy’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember.”
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Mayer even made time to debut a brief new tune, “Carry Me Away,” which was released on streaming services at 11 p.m. Thursday. “It would be rude if I didn’t play it!” he exclaimed.
Thursday’s performance was, on balance, exactly as Mayer described it before playing “Dear Marie,” one of the last songs of the night. “After 40, you can say 'lovely,'” he explained to the audience. “‘That was lovely.’ I can still get away with ‘dope,’ but not ‘fire.’ I’m too old for ‘fire.’”
As always, comfort took precedence over cool. John Mayer wouldn’t have it any other way.