The curse of John Mayer is that he’s got the heart of a virtuoso blues guitarist and the soul of a middle-of-the-road adult-contemporary singer and songwriter, both trapped together inside the boyish good looks of a sensitive pop idol. He tried to separate them out from one another Sunday night at TD Garden, with a concert divided into showcases for each of the formats Mayer is known for and wants to be known for: full pop band, acoustic wizard/balladeer, and blues-rock trio.
The concert structure was a gimmick, one that didn’t always work to the show’s advantage. Each new “chapter” (as the segments were explicitly labeled) necessitated a complete turnover of the stage setup, and while quick, they were a drag on the momentum. And his solo and trio sets merited only six songs total (three of which were covers), with the bulk of the focus resting undeniably on Mayer’s complete, eight-person band.
The main difference seemed to be the degree to which Mayer’s Berklee-honed guitar heroics came across as indulgent or served the songs. With nobody else to rein him in, the percussive, bassy fingerpicking of “Neon” was overly show-offy. And aping the lineup of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, he played with Hendrix’s thick, percussive tone on “Bold as Love” but couldn’t grasp his unfettered attack.
It was in stark contrast to the sharp, urgent playing his full band supported. While the head-popping “Queen of California” was like a warm summer breeze, Mayer closed it out with the first of many lyrical electric solos. And it wasn’t for show. When the extended solo came at the end of “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You),” it was the natural extension of the anguish he’d been expressing for the duration of the song. And with drummer Steve Jordan giving “Johnny B. Goode” a swinging roll, Mayer played within the boundaries of what Chuck Berry would have played (complete with jazz chords in the solo) but remained his own man, crisp and precise.
But Mayer also knew when to lay back. “Love on the Weekend” and “Who Says” were both pillow-soft by design, while “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” was smoldering in all senses of the term. Mayer may be caught between being James Taylor and Robert Cray, but he found the right balance when he just got out of his own way.
The Record Company opened with no-frills blues-rock of the kind that the Black Keys have long since outgrown.
With the Record Company
At TD Garden, April 9Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spacecitymarc.