CD Review of Where the Light Is: Live in Los Angeles by John Mayer
Recommended if you like
Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews,
Matt Nathanson
Label
Columbia
John Mayer:
Where the Light Is:
Live in Los Angeles

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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D
ear John,

I understand. Believe me, I do. Having a smash hit is great, but you didn’t spend all those years hunched over the frets just to wind up pigeonholed as the guy who did “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” and that’s exactly what it seemed like was going to happen to you after your first album was released. Adult contemporary ballads pay the bills, but they’re tough to come back from. Just ask the members of Heart, or Chicago, or Phil fucking Collins.

So okay, I can appreciate how desperately you’ve struggled to maintain some semblance of control over your career – how you’ve shown up for any left-field album cameo you can schedule, and how you used MTV and VH-1 as a forum for broadcasting your self-deprecating sense of humor, and even that thing with the “Borat” thong on the cruise ship. They’re all ways of showing that you’re a Serious Artist, and that even though you spend most of your time boning starlets, you’re still a regular guy, just like the rest of us.

And the music? I get that too. I saw you play at Slim’s back in…what was it, 2000? 2001? It was before the hits. Just you and a small band, up on the stage in a tiny club, dividing your set between the pop candy of Room for Squares and the Stevie Ray and Jimi-influenced axe antics of your earliest rock-star dreams. Even back then, you were warning people who bought Inside Wants Out that they shouldn’t lump you in with your sensitive, acoustic guitar-lovin’ Awarestore brethren – you had bigger fish to fry.

This is why I’ve always found your music sort of fascinating, even when you started biting off more than you could chew in an effort to make people take you seriously. Heavier Things was an okay record, I guess, although I couldn’t honestly tell you much about it, because I kept falling asleep. That stunt you pulled when you recruited Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan to back you up in the blues-rockin’ John Mayer Trio was pretty smart, even if it didn’t lead to anything more impressive than a live album and 2006’s wildly uneven Continuum. I see where you’re trying to go, and I respect you for making the effort; the smart business decision would be to keep on churning out radio-friendly love songs, and you deserve credit for refusing to play it safe.

John Mayer

Here’s the thing, though: You’re really very good at writing those radio-friendly love songs. All right, so you’re also very good at playing guitar – we get it. We’re all very impressed. Do you have to keep tossing out live albums filled with extended versions of the songs we skipped past on Heavier Things and Continuum just to prove a point? And while we’re on the subject, what’s with all the live albums, John? You’re not the Rolling Stones. You’ve released three live albums in less than a decade, and two of them – Where the Light Is included – are double-disc sets. Come on, John. Is this necessary? Does anyone need two live versions of “Vultures,” or “Who Did You Think I Was,” or “Neon,” or “Daughters,” or…well, you get the idea.

Look. These two CDs do a fine job of presenting all the facets of your music that you clearly want people to understand – you’ve got an acoustic set, a trio set, and a full band set in here. And the performances are all very solid, although it’s at least a little suspicious that the booklet credits a Pro Tools engineer. But you need to get back to writing real songs. It’s obvious you want to make like Clapton, and put your music’s vibe ahead of hooks or melodies – but you haven’t mastered the art of doing that yet. (Shit, not even Clapton’s mastered it. Just listen to Reptile or Back Home.) Nothing in here sticks to your ribs the way your early stuff did. You don’t need to write another “Your Body Is a Wonderland” – seriously, you don’t – but you do need to do a better job of blending John Mayer the guitarist with John Mayer the songwriter. And stop with the live albums already.

Your friend,

Jeff

P.S. If I’m ever in the same room with you when you play “Bold as Love,” so help me God, I’m going to punch you in the junk. Hands off the Hendrix.

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