Glen Travis Campbell brought country music to new audiences. He found success as a session musician before embarking on a solo career that included several smash hits. He announced he was suffering with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.
NASHVILLE — John Mayer is a complicated guy.
Some of his critics — and he has his share — would argue that he’s not as complicated as he thinks he is. And he might be cool with the assessment that he’s a smart guy who gets ahead of himself on occasion.
But among 21st century pop stars, Mayer stands out as a multifaceted talent. He’s been a 20-something VH1 heartthrob with a string of acoustic rock hits to his name. He’s also an esteemed guitarist, happy to act as sideman to talents of all leagues. And as he approaches his 40s, he has spent the last few years absorbing the catalog of the Grateful Dead, touring with members of that band in Dead and Company.
Now, with his Search for Everything tour — which stopped at Nashville’s Bridgestone
Arena on Tuesday — Mayer is giving several of his different sides a turn in the spotlight. Tuesday’s performance included three distinct sets from Mayer: with a full band, in his John Mayer Trio and solo with an acoustic guitar.
And his audience in Nashville (nearly a sold-out crowd) proved to be along for the entire ride. The signs were good from the opening tune, Helpless, when the room cheered just as loud upon the start of the song as they did when Mayer began one of his many dizzying guitar solos.
It was clear Bridgestone was filled with true blue fans, but Mayer sensed another contingent in Nashville.
“I believe 95% of the people in this room currently have a record deal, or are in talks to have a record deal,” he joked as his drummer made a quick rimshot. “Which makes my job particularly tense. Many, many great performers are in this room tonight.”
He mentioned Chris Stapleton by name, and country stars like Kelsea Ballerini had made it known on social media that she’d be attending the show as a “fangirl.”
Keeping this audience in mind, Mayer wasn’t going easy on himself.
“I gave myself an 85% or a B-minus on the last song,” he joked. “That’s what artists do when great artists are in the room.”
Speaking of great artists, Mayer made an unexpected announcement during his solo acoustic set.
“I’m going to play this song with more love than precision,” he said. “And I play it because it’s my favorite song in the world.”
That song was Gentle On My Mind, by country music icon Glen Campbell, who died Tuesday at age 81.
Though he’d probably deflect such comparisons, Mayer has a lot in common with Campbell, as a pop star who’s also an esteemed guitarist and sideman.
His solo acoustic take on Gentle went over well in Music City, but as Mayer explained, the success of the cover wasn’t his priority.
“Whether I play it right or wrong, I’d rather have played it.”
For the record, Mayer played it right.
As quickly as the room welcomed new songs, it took them mere milliseconds to recognize a track like Why Georgia, off his 2001 debut Room for Squares. Mayer said it reminded him of driving his mom’s minivan through Nashville on his earliest tours, sometime around 1998.
His raucous mini-set with his John Mayer Trio provided an initial jolt of electricity —particularly with the blues-rock staple Crossroads — but was also the most taxing stretch overall. The acoustic and trio turns kept the evening fresh, but the full band (which bookended the night) couldn’t help but house the highlights.
If you were asked to name Mayer’s biggest hits, you’d almost certainly mention Gravity. Still, you might not realize that it towers over the rest of his catalog, until you hear an arena give it a royal welcome at the end of a first encore. Mayer indulged in one final epic solo before bounding off the stage — and hinting to the crowd that he had one more tune to play.
That was another new one: You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me, and Mayer’s solo piano rendition revealed a bit of a debt to Randy Newman’s Dayton Ohio – 1903. It wasn’t much like the cool blues-rocker that took the stage two hours before, but his audience was just fine with that.
“You are an awesome crowd, for giving me the freedom to play whatever moves me the most,” he’d told them earlier.
Later, he added, “I wrote songs I thought were cool, but you guys set up homes in them, and made me feel like when I play them, I’m going somewhere with you guys. I never saw that coming, and that’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my career.”
Follow Dave Paulson on Twitter: @ItsDavePaulson
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