Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles – John Mayer, 2008
Never mind Album of the Week, ‘Where The Light Is’ is pretty much album of a lifetime so I apologise in advance for the gushing.
Whatever you think of John Mayer – whether it be his less than perfect/awful reputation with women, some of the weird stuff he’s said in interviews, his social media faux pas or perhaps a reputation for being teeny-bopping heartthrob romanticist – it’s all wrong.
Ok it’s not, but the last bit is and it’s the music we’re interested here. Whatever else he is, John Mayer is an incredibly skilled guitarist – but don’t take my word for it, Eric Clapton thinks he’s ok (gifted) too. He’s also a great musician, by which I don’t mean in the generic “he makes great songs” sense, but that he has a deep knowledge of musical theory.
I think he’s also an extremely talented composer, lyricist and performer and for me, this album demonstrates all of those qualities in a simple but effective format. It’s not a show in the theatrical sense, he doesn’t charm the audience between songs (aside from the “I love you too” in the Daughters intro) and there are certainly no dance routines. It’s just straightforward live music.
Split into three parts, the performance includes an acoustic set of well-known hits and an astounding cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin’; the John Mayer Trio with some out and out blues and serious guitar playing; before the full band smashes it out of the park with tracks from Continuum and a bag-full-of-tricks cover of Ray Charles’ ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’. If you absolutely refuse to listen to anything else on this album, you must, MUST give six minutes and two seconds of your life to – you won’t regret it, I promise.
What I really love about this album is that it’s a showcase for all of the things I enjoy about Mayer’s music in an environment he and the rest of the band are clearly relishing.
I don’t play electric guitar and I can only just about get by strumming some open chords on the acoustic, but I think you can tell a lot more about someone’s guitar playing from hearing them play the latter. When you don’t have the luxury of effects, pedals, a whammy bar, distortion and so on you’ve got six strings and nothing but your skill and imagination to make them sound interesting, unique or whatever else. Clearly, the converse argument is that the more tools you have at your disposal the more imaginative you can be, and I wouldn’t disagree, I just think they can be abused to hide other shortcomings in the wrong hands.
What I’m getting to, in a long-winded fashion, is that the first five tracks on this album are an absolute masterclass in acoustic guitar playing. ‘Neon’ opens with a bluesy prelude before kicking into the finger-twisting riff which the solo then returns to when Mayer shows off some seriously quick hands as he dances up and down the fretboard. The ‘In Your Atmosphere’ riff is accentuated by harmonics, thrown in as casually as you like before ‘Daughters’ ups the ante by mixing more harmonics with sublime slide, though this time it’s Robbie McIntosh doing the hard yards as Mayer sticks to rhythm and vocals. The set concludes with that wonderful ‘Free Fallin’ rendition as David LaBruyere joins on acoustic bass and some perfectly mellow backing vocals.
Then from the relative safety of radio-friendly hits he and the rest of the JM Trio, Steve Jordan and Pino Palladino, dive into full-on electric blues – a completely different playing style and skillset on the guitar and you have to be brave, stupid or just damned good at what you do to attempt to cover Hendrix. Twice.
There are glimpses of Mayer’s blues playing throughout his studio releases but this set is a great opportunity to hear him play music he clearly enjoys. There’s a brief flash of what’s to come at the end of ‘Everyday I Have The Blues’ before the funky riff of ‘Wait Until Tomorrow’ gives him the chance to let loose and thrash out a brilliant shreddy solo. The self-penned ‘Who Did You Think I Was’ and ‘Come When I Call’ demonstrate the breadth of his blues ability with entirely different, but equally entertaining solos leading to the ten minute long rendition of ‘Out Of My Mind’, an electric-blue slow-jam where Mayer just plays, and plays and plays as though no-one is listening to the point where it’s almost an annoyance that he interrupts it to sing. A thing of beauty.
The final set is just about great songs and a great band with the notable exception of ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ (have I mentioned that you HAVE to listen to that?) which, aside from having an awesome riff, finishes with two minutes of absolutely glorious soloing with a quick dip into double-time and back to boot before signing off with the greatest head-rocking, foot-stomping, speed-scale riff on the whole album.
And with that, I’ve run out of superlatives so we’ll have to move on.
Unlike his guitar playing, I’m not going to suggest Mayer is one of the greatest voices of a generation – though I do think he’s got a great voice. What I will say however is that his control, accuracy, range and depth of emotion add a layer of complexity and interest to his singing that you just don’t get from a lot of singers. From endlessly singing along with them I can tell you that he uses a lot of his vocal range in most songs and that’s on show here when he drops some falsetto into ‘Stop This Train’, ‘In Your Atmosphere’ ‘Daughters’ and ‘Free Fallin’. That’s one thing in the studio but hitting those notes effortlessly with nothing but an acoustic guitar to hide behind if you miss them is no mean feat.
What’s also interesting is the wider variations from the melody he chooses during live performances, which I think relates back to his level of musical knowledge. As you listen through there are multiple occasions where he strikes an unexpected blues or jazz-like tone that doesn’t feature on the recorded versions.
This one is potentially a leap because I don’t know too much about his musical education but I think there are certain artists who, playing or lyric-writing ability aside, clearly have a deep understanding of the mechanics and maths of music that – I would suggest – doesn’t come as naturally as learning the physical side of playing an instrument. That’s absolutely not to say that to be a good songwriter, or instrumentalist or a commercial success you have to have years of academic study under your belt – in fact, I think one of the joys of music is precisely that you don’t!
What I am saying is that, for me, John Mayer’s musical composition has a uniqueness to it that adds to my enjoyment of his music. Take ‘In Your Atmosphere’ as an example – by itself an insightful, enjoyable song. But Mayer takes it a step further and almost makes a ballad out of it with two entirely different verses added to the end. The ‘Vultures’ riff is just a little…..I don’t know…..but different. The acoustic backings of ‘Why Georgia’, ‘Neon’, ‘Stop This Train’, ‘The Heart of Life’ and ‘Daughters’ are all distinct and musically interesting.
It’s hard to define any better than that but what I’m trying to say is, other than it involving a guitar, it’s relatively hard to explain what a typical Mayer song is. There’s no obvious pattern, no “key change for the final verse” cheapness or even a single genre that covers his music, and I think that’s pretty damned cool.
Something else I genuinely love about Mayer’s songwriting is the way he can isolate the emotion of a specific event and finds a way to express it in three or four verses. He doesn’t write about being heartbroken, he writes about a relationship that’s ending and the agony of both people knowing it but not wanting to accept it in ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’. ‘I’m Gonna Find Another You’ isn’t just a breakup song it’s about that bitter/bittersweet feeling of being dumped and making the first steps of moving on. ‘Stop This Train’ expresses his fear of getting older, being forced to grow up and ultimately losing his parents and ‘fighting life out on my own’.
Someone once said (and I don’t think it was just me, but I couldn’t tell you who) that there was a John Mayer song for every occasion, and whilst most of them are relationship focused I don’t think that’s too far from the truth.
Whether it be solo, trio or full band I think this whole album is a resounding example of how special live performances can be when everything comes together with a certain unrepeatable magic. When you absolutely love a bunch of songs and you know them inside out and yet somehow, when you see them live and the artist has tweaked them, improved them, strung them together and is giving 100% to the audience, they are transformed into something which can never quite be captured. To me this feels like it was one of those occasions – which means as good as the album is, the real thing must have been immense.
In fact, it was live tracks that started my love affair with JM. I’d heard ‘Gravity’ on an episode of House, downloaded a special edition of Continuum and was half-listening to it on the underground when I suddenly heard a brass section, genuine guitar playing, interesting vocal variation and an obvious love of live performing. The rest, as they cliché, is history.
Ok, I’m rambling, my man crush has been fully exposed and I’ve made us all feel a little uncomfortable, but I urge you to give it half an hour and see where it takes you. Two hours later you might just thank me.