John Mayer won’t go ballistic if he hears you’ve outgrown his “Room for Squares” CD. Or that you’re so over his Grammy-winning hit “Daughters.” Or that you’d rather go deaf than hear “Your Body Is A Wonderland” again.
Mayer feels the same way. Just two CDs and three years into a multiplatinum recording career, Mayer talks about his past hits with disdain, like an embarrassing high school yearbook photo.
“I’m done with acoustic guitar, balladeering, I’m done with acoustic groove. Acoustic groove sucks so bad,” moans the boyish singer-songwriter. “I’ve sucked the flavor out of it.”
If earnest crooning and guitar strumming over mellow grooves define Mayer’s musical adolescence, he’s grown into to more substantial, mature fare with his latest passions — funk, soul, and most notably, the blues.
No longer is James Taylor his model — now Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles and Buddy Guy are the musical heroes Mayer hopes to emulate as he embarks on his new mission — trying to make the rest of America fall as hard for the blues as he has.
Love for the blues“I believe that people could love blues more than I believe anything in my life,” says the boyish-looking Mayer, sitting on his sleek couch in his even sleeker Soho apartment.
“That’s my whole year, that people could like blues. The problem is who’s been playing it, what’s the sentiment behind it, what’s the need behind it,” he says. “Most people who play blues ... they’re playing for themselves, and I’m thinking about how to get blues to other people. And that’s through pop music. [Eric] Clapton does it, and he makes me want to tear my hair out because I want to do it too.”
While he may not be on the same level as the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, the 28-year-old Mayer is impressive nonetheless on his new live CD, “Try! The John Mayer Trio Live In Concert,” released Tuesday. The album encapsulates Mayer’s musical journey over the past year — much of it spent on the road performing material like Ray Charles “I Got A Woman” and Mayer’s own soulful compositions with two veteran musicians, drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino.
“Daughters” is the only tune from the Mayer catalog on the CD — and that song is significantly revamped. Yet in concert, that didn’t seem to matter to his fans. At a recent performance at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the audience, which varied from shrieking teenage girls to sophisticated baby boomers, remained on their feet as Mayer’s frenetic guitar play anchored the evening.
“The reaction from the audience is wild because they don’t know what to expect, but they’re loyal fans, so they know that John doesn’t intend to steer them wrong,” says Jordan.
Jordan, a past collaborator, says Mayer’s immersion in blues and soul is not something that came about on a whim (his next studio CD, “Continuum,” is due out next year and continues in the bluesy vein).
“I think he’s always had a love for blues and R&B — he’s always been a big blues fan,” Jordan says. “He became popular off a different type of songwriting — a melodic soft side — but still had a lot of intensity and obvious musicality.”
Mayer says his previous CDs, 2001’s “Room for Squares” and 2003’s “Heavier Things,” didn’t reflect that blues influence because he didn’t think he was at a point musically where he could do it properly.
“I always go for the path that ignites me the most, and I’ve always been beyond intrigued — I mean, just enraptured by blues music and soul music and the depth of that music,” he says. “[But] because I know blues so well, I know when I’m not getting it and I know when I’m not good enough for it.”
So he focused on the kind of emotive singer-songwriter odes that were palatable to a wide audience, from college radio to pop and adult contemporary stations. His two major-label albums sold about five million copies combined, and earned him three Grammys, including song of the year this year for the sentimental track “Daughters.”
Ready to put ‘Wonderland’ awayYet the more popular Mayer became, the more ubiquitous his kind of music became, as soundalikes flooded the scene. At the same time, Mayer began to grow more disenchanted with his best-selling works. Playing them night after night made them sound dated, he says.
“Ray Charles in 1962 is the same feeling you get now because it’s human — it’s a human emotion, not human intellect,” he says.
“Nobody cares about ‘Your Body is a Wonderland.’ If I wasn’t changing, people wouldn’t care about ‘Wonderland’ in the first place. They become relics. And I’m too young to be a nostalgia band, I’m too young to remind somebody of 2002. That’s not fun.”
But ditching the kind of music that made him a household name for a genre that for many fans is the very definition of musical nostalgia might seem foolhardy. Even Mayer declares that the “art form is pretty dead right now.”
But Mayer believes he can bring the music to the masses by tailoring it to a pop audience.
“I’m not the best person who has ever done it. But I’m the most popular person who has ever done it in the last ten years,” he declares. “That’s my duty.”
Listening to a young white kid from Connecticut describe himself as the savior of a genre that’s been around for close to a century might sound like the ultimate form of hubris to blues aficionados. But Mayer is careful to point out that he’s not a blues master — just perhaps the right person to give it a more popular face — or as he says, to move the music along.
“I’ll take some [stuff] from people saying this is a watered-down version of other things that you can find. True. ’Why would you listen to this when you can just listen to B.B. King and it will be better?’ True.
“But I have the ability to bring this music across to people with a certain flavor that is more digestible to people,” he says. “So yes, I’m more watered down than B.B. King, but maybe that’s what sometimes people want to take in, to be able to take it in.”