Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2008, Volume 15, #7
Written by John Metzger
Thu July 17, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Despite rumors of his early retirement, John Mayer has all the makings of an artist who will be around for the long haul. To his credit, he hasn’t allowed himself to be hemmed into any particular niche market. Instead, he leveraged his almost instantaneous success into a more durable and balanced career path. In an age where growth and development barely are acknowledged by the music industry, his label surprisingly has nurtured him by trusting his instincts and catering to his whims. Mayer’s latest effort — which reproduces his three-set performance at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theater in December 2007 — is designed specifically to take stock of where he has been. Consequently, it highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses that have defined his canon thus far.
Setting his various Grammy accolades aside for a moment, there’s little doubt that Mayer is a better guitarist and showman than he is a songwriter. Nevertheless, he has made significant progress over the years as he moved from his breakthrough Room for Squares to Heavier Things to his latest studio outing Continuum. Interestingly, the more original material from which he has to choose in constructing the set lists for his concerts, the more he seems to forsake his biggest hits in favor of incorporating selections from outside sources into his shows. Mayer recently tackled George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord as well as Duffy’s Mercy, for example, and Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles boasts his renditions of Jimi Hendrix’s Wait until Tomorrow and Bold As Love, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’, and Ashford & Simpson’s I Don’t Need No Doctor. Although his interpretations sometimes miss their mark — his version of Free Fallin’ is particularly drab — it’s easy to hear how he is using his record collection to provide variety as well as to learn the tricks of his trade.
Divided into three distinctive sets, Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles gives Mayer an opportunity to highlight his full range as a performer. Of these, the five songs by his acoustic trio that open the collection fare worst. Not only do the bare-bones arrangements expose his deficiencies as a composer, but also Mayer takes relatively few liberties with the material. Instead of truly reinventing his work — like, for example, how Eric Clapton forged something new from the tired refrains of Layla — Mayer restricts himself to following a familiar template. In a sense, the final segment of the show, featuring his full band, is plagued by the same sorts of issues, though the larger slate of accompanists at least provides the textural diversity to make it more interesting.
Still, Mayer frequently seems bored with his material. Although Gravity fares better than its studio counterpart, many of the songs featured on Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles, including the newer selections from Continuum, never quite manage to maintain their momentum. Too often they are dispensed with an air of slick professionalism. While Mayer may be giving his fans precisely what they want to hear, he doesn’t necessarily sound as if he is having much fun performing them. Those who choose to listen closely to the collection will hear that he isn’t fully engaged with many of his compositions. It’s only during the middle set, which features his electric trio, that the music really comes alive.
Accompanied by session drummer Steve Jordan and bass player Pino Palladino — who is, perhaps, best known for filling John Entwistle’s shoes in The Who — Mayer aggressively attacks the material. His performance is both energetic and inspired, and with the help of his backing band, he dutifully highlights the healthy blues credentials that he has amassed of late. Over the course of the eight-song segment, Mayer’s lacerating lead guitar solos collide with the fury of his rhythm section, mirroring the forcefulness of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience as well as echoing the soul-and-blues concoctions that once were unleashed by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Only Vultures falters, despite the fact that it, oddly enough, is one of a pair of tunes that the members of the John Mayer Trio wrote in collaboration. By connecting the acoustic material to the full-band fare, it provides a change of pace and a moment of transition, but it also feels completely out of place, as if it has been squeezed into the wrong portion of the performance.
Unlike many concert albums, Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles isn’t necessarily supposed to stand as a greatest hits-oriented collection. Instead, Mayer paints the canvas of his career with broader strokes from his brush. Consequently, it often sounds as if it might be the final hurrah by John Mayer, the overnight sensation. Although he likely won’t forsake the pop world from which he originally sprang, it’s clear that Mayer is interested in exploring other avenues of expression. The old-school soul that increasingly has begun to infiltrate his work — he cleverly employs a portion of Otis Redding’s Dreams to Remember as the introduction to Gravity — combined with his fully blossomed love of the blues provides an indication that he might yet save mainstream, adult contemporary fare from its own mediocrity.
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance
Of Further Interest...
Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles [CD] is
available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles [DVD] is
available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box