By Marty Mulrooney
I had the great pleasure of seeing John Mayer for a second time last Friday at the Apollo Theatre in Manchester, UK. I recently reviewed John’s latest album Battle Studies on AMO here, where I described it as a grower. Keeping that conclusion in mind, I was certainly very eager to see how these songs would sound when performed live.
But before I get ahead of myself, I must give a well deserved mention to support act Codeine Velvet Club, formed in 2009 by Lou Hickey and Jon Lawler (who no doubt most will know as Jon Fratelli).
Featuring a full backing band (including several brass instruments, kudos for not just sticking to the same old guitar sound guys!) they started off by getting a pleasing reaction from the crowd with their opening song (always hard when you are a new act) before getting the cheers they actually deserved with their cover of ‘Gimmie Shelter’ which was amazing!
‘Time’ worked fairly well but ‘Nevada’ was probably too slow to really get the crowd going upon first listen, yet ‘Little Sister’ was a triumph and had everyone humming along to its catchy lyrics and jazzy backing before it was over. A superb support act who never outstayed their welcome. I will definitely be checking out their debut album.
So now we are on to Mayer himself. I am also about to break one of the rules I was taught during my Journalism/Media studies and inject this review with quite a lot of personal context. Please trust me when I say that this is relevant to the review!
Leading up to this gig, I’d had a pretty crap week. Nothing in particular really, but just a feeling of general fed-upness. Furthermore, my girlfriend wasn’t in the best of moods either: a potent mix. I felt pretty unwell to boot; the idea of getting the train to Manchester in the cold weather wasn’t that appealing.
The queue to get in was like some kind of Beadle’s About remake, with people trying to annoy me and my girlfriend constantly. For the hour and a half we were stood there, the two guys behind us commented on every single girl who walked past (“I’d do HER!”), as well as bickering about who should go and put their coats in the car.
A tramp also had an ingenious method of begging for change that I had never seen before: he walked straight down the middle of the entire queue, bottle of cider sloshing everywhere, spending a good 5 minutes with each and every person telling his life story. All of this to the background noise of several burly Mancs shout-whispering (trust me, it’s possible) “Get your unofficial John Mayer t-shirts!” (it was simply the latest album cover printing onto a cheap black t-shirt) and “Tickets! Buy or sell TICKETS!”
When my girlfriend and I finally got in, I had a beer, relaxed and tried to get myself in a better mindset. The support act were great which helped (see above) and I am a huge Mayer fan of course. Sadly, this is when we entered what I like to call Shitsville. You see, neither myself or my girlfriend are very tall. With the knowledge that John was about to come on, many taller male fans rushed forward, completely obscuring our view.
With hardly anywhere to move (we did try, but some classy girls then decided they didn’t want us standing in front of them either: “Keep pushin em’ till they fu*kin moveee! They can’t stay thereee!) we ended up standing back where we had started, not being able to see the stage at all. The next minute my girlfriend and I are swearing at each other and she is standing a distance away from me, looking like she is going to murder me. Not good.
Then the lights started to come up, people were screaming, and Heartbreak Warfare began to echo out from the stage. Like the ocean parting, people’s heads seemed to slot to the sides of our vision in an instant; we could see! My girlfriend is smiling now, holding my hand while I hum along. It was as if the beauty of the song and the pleased reaction of the crowd just washed all the stupid crap away. Cliché? No doubt, but without a word of a lie I felt a sense of elation as soon as he began to sing.
The last time I saw John I felt he performed very well, although it felt perhaps slightly over-rehearsed. I have no such complaints here: it was as if he had found a renewed energy. By the time he played his cover of Crossroads I was hooked. I saw Eric Clapton live several months ago doing his version of the same song… I may actually give the edge to Mayer here! I think many people write him off as a pretty-boy singer sometimes and forget that he is an amazing guitarist.
How did they find me here,
What do they want from me,
All of these vultures hanging,
Right outside my door.
I hear them whisperin’,
They’re tryin’ to ride it out,
They’ve never gone this long,
Without a kill before.
Vultures has always been a favourite of mine and he really let rip both vocally and on the guitar whilst playing it. He seemed really happy and comfortable on stage, playing with the crowd constantly throughout the gig. Pulling faces, telling little jokes, and there was even one moment where he put his finger to his lips and the sound zipped out of the room like it had been depressurised. He was in full control and loving every second of it.
Why Georgia was a solid song to perform from an earlier album and it was delivered here very intimately, getting a great response from the crowd who sang along with plenty of enthusiasm.
Another nice aspect of the gig was that John brought more focus to his fantastic live band: David Ryan Harris sang a beautiful introduction to Slow Dancing In A Burning Room, and we were also treated to a drum solo from Steve Jordan, after the crowd had sang him happy birthday of course!
Case in point: I was somewhat worried John wouldn’t be able to perform the gorgeous Half Of My Heart off the new album due to the duel nature (male and female) of the vocals, yet he managed it perfectly well with his capable backing singers standing in for the Taylor Swift parts. John was note perfect throughout but it was brilliant to know that he also had the reliable support of a solid group of musicians around him.
I have to admit, Gravity featured some insane guitar work that almost fooled me into thinking it was the end of the gig! His fingers where flying and at the end he came right up to the crowd and rocked out, eyes closed, a smile on his face. It was beautifully contrasted with the next song…
Have no fear for giving in,
Have no fear for giving over,
You better know that in the end,
It’s better to say too much,
Than never to say what you need to say again.
Say was originally written for the Bucket List (film) and being honest, I never really cared for it much. Here though… wow. I got shivers, it really is a beautiful song and I thought John really poured a lot of his soul and emotion into the lyrics when he performed it on this cold Manchester night for his British fans.
After the expected encore he came back to deliver no less than four more songs! 3X5 was brilliant, one of the best performances of the night showing off some expert guitar skills and again, powerful, confident vocals.
Furthermore, just when I thought John couldn’t top some funny Jeff Goldblum jibes he’d made earlier on, he started talking about friends either being huggy-kissy or bangy-screwy, which got a very long laugh from the crowd before the final song began. It had been an amazing night.
Friends, Lovers, Or Nothing was a perfect end to the whole gig. It was already my favourite song from the new Battle Studies album (in my recent review I compared it rather favourably to Hey Jude by The Beatles). I honestly think I can speak for everyone present that night (except for the disgusting couple who where practically having sex to my right… get a room!) by saying that there was not one person who wasn’t cheering and hollering at the stage by the end of this final song. The atmosphere was brilliant! He even got a standing ovation from the upper circle.
Some may say he played the set-list safe, but I would disagree. He gave people what they wanted without being big-headed or egotistical and had plenty of fun in the process. If anything he felt rather humble throughout and let the music do the talking, new songs mixing with the old really well. The musicianship on display was out of this world and I have no qualms by stating that John Mayer is one of my favourite musical acts of all time. He completely topped the last time I saw him as well, which should have been impossible. A phenomenal gig that I never wanted to end.
10 OUT OF 10
Gig Ticket: £28.50
Official T-Shirt: £20
Overpriced Pint: £3.70
Unofficial Hoody: £10
John Mayer bringing my girlfriend back from the brink of murder: Priceless.