John Mayer long ago established his know-how at using catchy pop songs, robust vocals, blues-tinted guitar soloing, good looks and a friendly vibe to excite big crowds. He handily connects with listeners whether leading his own bands — dating back more than two decades — or serving as a not-so-secret weapon with the ex-Grateful Dead players in Dead & Company.
And now, like very few major concert artists, Mayer has notched another impressive achievement: The 45-year-old singer, songwriter and six-string slinger is going it entirely alone, handily captivating tens of thousands of fans at large arenas around the country.
He achieved just such a feat on Monday night at Ball Arena in Denver, in front of a crowd of about 20,000 fans, many of whom appeared to know every word to nearly every song he played during the two-hour set.
Mayer, accompanying himself on various guitars and piano, is playing without a net, so to speak: He doesn’t have to worry about maintaining tight arrangements with other musicians, or sticking to the same group of well-rehearsed tunes night after night.
Instead, he pulled out some favorite covers — Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”; the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” on double-neck acoustic; and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” as a closer — and some seldom-performed songs, like “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” played on his National Resonator 12-string guitar.
He also offered a test run (reportedly the second time, after Minneapolis) of a song probably called “In the Neighborhood,” a terrific, evocative tune with the lyrics “I’m back in town/And I think I’m here for good.” It’s an appealing story-song piece with something of a Springsteen-esque vibe — think “My Hometown.”
The first portion of the show, on which Mayer mostly stuck to acoustic guitar, occasionally playing harmonica, opened with “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” and continued with “Heartbreak Warfare,” “XO,” “Half of My Heart,” “Neon,” “3×5,” “Good Love is On the Way,” “The Age of Worry,” the jaunty “Who Says” and “In Your Atmosphere.”
“I’m a rudimentary pianist,” the frequently self-effacing Mayer said before using simple but effective block chords to support “New Light,” “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” and “I Will Be Found (Lost at Sea),” during which he ripped electric guitar over live-recorded piano chords,” and “Changing.”
Back on acoustic guitar, he turned to “Stop This Train,” “In the Blood,” the crowd-pleasing “Your Body is a Wonderland” and “Shouldn’t Matter But It Does,” then switching to double-neck acoustic for “If I Ever Get Around to Living” and “Edge of Desire”; for that last one, he played a six-string solo over two bars of live-recorded 12-string chords.
And the encore brought “Born and Raised” and the Petty cover.
“I can’t retrace how I got here,” Mayer sang on the former song. His show, which included video clips of his younger self, circa 2002 and 2005, might be thought of as an attempt to rewind and review — to provide a retrospective of musical and personal highways and byways that he has traveled since making his debut with 2001’s “Room for Squares” album.
It’s been a long, not-so-strange trip by an artist likely to have plenty of creative fuel left in the tank.
Next up: More solo shows, and a summer trek on Dead & Company’s final tour, including a May 6 stop at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. He comes to my neck of the country — Tampa — on Oct. 13.
— PHILIP BOOTH, a musician and critic based in Tampa, writes for Jazziz, Relix and JazzTimes magazines, and the Substack newsletter Screen Time With Philip Booth. His byline has also appeared in The Washington Post, Billboard, Variety, Tampa Bay Times/St. Petersburg Times, Salon.com, Rolling Stone and many other publications. He was the pop music critic for The Tampa Tribune. Contact him directly at email@example.com.