By: Robert Kyte
Photos by: Chloe McGill
While I was watching Kanye perform “Stronger” with Daft Punk at the 2008 VMA’s (and giving my laptop diseases trying to find it on LimeWire), John Mayer had recently finished playing, filming, and recording a live show at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. The footage was later adapted into a short film and released as a live album titled Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles. This is indisputably his best work to date. Though this collection of music is not even officially listed as an album, it is what solidifies him as not only a living tribute to the legends of classic blues rock, but as a member of their timeless ranks himself.
Mayer’s career began in 1999 with an EP titled Inside Wants Out, yet it wasn’t until 2001 when Mayer signed with Columbia Records that his career catapulted. His first real hit, “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” became the reason girls flocked to his shows en masse and guys couldn’t do anything besides talk about how boring and unimpressive he was. That is, until they tried to play “Neon,” quickly shut up, and went back to playing Wonderwall instead. Before launching into “Wonderland” at his DC show this past April, Mayer described this exact scenario—“I know it’s not a great song,” he said, “but it’s grown and changed with me, and it skyrocketed my career, so I’m gonna play it anyway.” 16 years later, Mayer had everyone singing along.
In 2006, while I was too busy listening to the All-American Rejects’ “Move Along” and Sean Paul’s “Temperature,” Mayer quietly released Continuum. I remember hearing my 4th grade TA’s phone ring with the tune of “Waiting on the World to Change” and thinking hey, I know that song. But at eight years old I failed to truly appreciate the masterpiece that Continuum is. If you think of all the John Mayer songs you know, you’ll see that they’re likely from this album. Everyone knows “Waiting…”, but remember that Continuum also has “Belief,” “The Heart of Life,” “Vultures,” “Stop this Train,” “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” “I’m Gonna Find Another You”—oh yeah, and “Gravity.” Continuum is an album of hits, yet it was still met with complaints of the same detached and apathetic John Mayer style. On tour for Continuum, however, Mayer dissolved these criticisms once and for all. On this tour, Mayer showed Los Angeles—and the rest of the world—Where the Light Is.
The show was structured into three separate acts. First Mayer, alone with a guitar, delivered a five-song acoustic set of hits like “Daughters,” “Stop This Train”, plus the unrecorded tracks “In Your Atmosphere,” now a fan favorite, and an experimental cover of the late Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin.”
Next, the John Mayer Trio took the stage. The group is comprised of Mayer on guitar/vocals, plus bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan, both of whom are hailed musicians known for their work with The Who and Keith Richards, respectively. The Trio boasts a shocking capacity for classic blues rock, blending Trio originals into a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold as Love”. Somehow the piece manages to fully showcase the Trio’s authentic skillset while paying tribute to and preserving the magic of the original work. The 10-minute guitar illustration “Out of My Mind,” wherein Mayer expertly weaves a musical tapestry replete with threads of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Allman Brothers, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton, makes it emphatically clear that the Trio, and Mayer in particular, is to be respected alongside the greats of rock and roll.
The final nine tracks of Where the Light Is only further solidify John Mayer’s rank among the iconic artists of our time. Originals like “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” met with covers of Ray Charles and Otis Redding that lead into 10 minutes of “Gravity” highlight the fact that John Mayer not only knows who paved the way before him, but that he himself is on a clear path to greatness of his own. To me, Where the Light Is is Mayer’s greatest work, and an album that I will undoubtedly listen to for the rest of my life.
Mayer has long been known for letting his overbearing and sometimes arrogant personality overshadow his music, especially after two particularly cringe-worthy interviews with Playboy and Rolling Stone. But after two albums with modest sale numbers and a 4-year hiatus that followed, Mayer says he’s ready to reenter the music scene. At 40, he has acknowledged moments of past turbulence, come to terms with what he’s really good at, and released a new album, titled The Search for Everything. “So many little worlds to hang in with these tracks,” the artist tweeted prior to its release. “This one is a dusty dreamy getaway.”
I’ve had the privilege to see Mayer twice on his most recent The Search for Everything tour, and after two live experiences I am inclined to label him as the greatest guitarist of our generation. While, as a studio album, The Search isn’t a full-fledged showcase of Mayer’s blues rock skillset, nor is it a return to the energetic guitar-pop of his earlier work, it’s arguably his most personal album yet. In a live performance, The Search fits right alongside the highlights of Mayer’s career, blending in effortlessly between acoustic excursions, intense blues riffs, and solos. Between the two shows, I was able to see everything that Where the Light Is has to offer, nearly every song from his latest album, and even a handful of older songs I didn’t know like “3×5.”
Mayer ended both shows with “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me,” the final track on The Search for Everything. The song is a deconstructed ballad on a love so deep that it seems even the end of the world will not extinguish it. Yet, as both a song and a message, it is much more than that. While it seems that every year we lose more and more greats—David Bowie, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen, Prince, George Michael, and, most recently, Tom Petty—we can trust that John Mayer will continue to give life to their music while maintaining an air of authenticity that demands the respect of a musician who stands alongside them. “I love you so much,” he says to the audience before walking off, a final testament to the fact that he’s come to grips with his contentious past, but he’s ready to return to music, a more self-aware and visionary artist. Welcome back, John.