As a fleet of cameras zoomed over the crowd eagerly awaiting the second show of John Mayer's new tour at New York City's Beacon Theatre on Tuesday night, a man stepped onstage to explain what was going on. "This is not a TV show, it's a concert," reassured Michael Simon, who was directing a live broadcast for Fuse TV. A concert, he added, "with two small commercial breaks."
So no, it wasn't the most rock'n'roll of settings for Mayer, who was celebrating the day's release of his fourth album, Battle Studies (Columbia), but the tabloid-friendly pop star has always been comfortable with his rock and non-rock tendencies, both of which were on display throughout the two-hour performance. His virtuoso guitar chops commingled with middle-of-the-road melodies, lyrics about marijuana and meaningless sex softened into ones about treating daughters well, and he gazed into the crowd with wide-eyed solemnity one moment and wagged his pelvis the next.
Mayer's career-spanning set touched upon old standards like "Why Georgia" and "No Such Thing" from his 2000 debut, Room for Squares, and crowd-pleasers like "Daughters," "Bigger Than My Body," and "Waiting on the World to Change," as well as several highlights from Battle Studies.
The cracked hearts adorning the t-shirts lining the lobby's merch area symbolized the new album's lyrical content, but the music itself was far from downtrodden. "Heartbreak Warfare," the post-break-up lament that Mayer opened both his album and the concert with, eschews moodiness for a pastiche of undulating Kraftwerk-y synth and U2-referencing guitar riffs that was particularly rousing.
During the first commercial break Mayer paused, somewhat awkwardly, and asked if everyone was having fun. Then he paused again, and admitted, "I'm going to be honest -- I don't really have a frame of reference for commercial breaks." He chose to fill the remaining dead air with his best impression of an unctuous TV host introducing imaginary guests -- a moment of pure, impromptu silliness -- then offered a sincere thanks to the fans. This juxtaposition of humor and emotional honesty has become almost as signature to Mayer as his effervescent guitar solos, which graced nearly every song of his set.
Fittingly, he ended the concert with the Battle's closing track, "Friends, Lovers or Nothing" -- a song that rests on Mayer's theory that every non-familial relationship fits neatly into one of those categories (and gently implying that friends with benefits is a bad idea). It was one last piece of lighthearted wisdom before the cameras turned off.