Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/07/2008
When I reviewed Continuum, I commented on what a clever name that was for a guy whose sound has evolved as much over a relatively short amount of time as John Mayer’s has. Crooning folk-rock sex symbol to serious-minded melodic rocker to Claptonesque blues-rocker is a lot of ground to cover in a career, let alone five years.
So what’s a guy with a built-in audience and all kinds of artistic ambition to do, but see if he can cram all three musical identities into a single night. The new double-CD live set Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles delivers a musical triptych as perhaps only John Mayer circa 2008 could pull it off.
Disc one features both a five-song solo acoustic set and an eight-song set with his Cream-like blues-rock John Mayer Trio, which includes musical heavyweights Pino Palladino (The Who, David Gilmour, Eric Clapton) on bass and Steve Jordan (Blues Brothers, John Mayall, Keith Richards) on drums. Disc two features a nine-song set with Mayer’s regular eight-piece touring band.
The acoustic set puts Mayer’s songwriting and voice in the forefront, and he puts a nice makeover on kickoff cut “Neon” from his 1999 debut Inside Wants Out, emphasizing the song’s soul roots and showing off some nimble guitar work. The rest of this brief set is pleasant but fairly predictable (“Daughters” -- well, of course…), with the exception of the closer. Covers are usually fun with a talent like Mayer, but surprisingly, the weak link of the opening set is his acoustic cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” – a sweetly lyrical tune that falls flat here as Mayer fails to invest it with any real passion.
The eight-song Trio set repeats five tracks from the group’s 2005 live disc Try! and adds three fresh ones, including his knockout Hendrix cover “Axis: Bold As Love,” which appeared in studio form on Continuum. The quality of this and the Trio’s other Hendrix cover, of the explosive “Wait Until Tomorrow,” just goes to show how much Mayer has grown as a musician, not to mention what a great ear for melody Hendrix had -- Mayer sounds right at home whether scatting effortlessly through the shotgunned verses or ripping out a Jimi-worthy solo.
Elsewhere in the Trio set, “Who Did You Think I Was” is another song worth repeating, a tremendous workout full of sass and churning riffs, as is the snappy slow blues “Out Of My Mind,” which gets an extended reading full of sustain-fueled soloing. “Everyday I Have The Blues” and “Come When I Call” both feature a bit more of an SRV Texas strut, but both fit right into the Trio groove. And “Vultures” is simply brilliant electric soul; this is the third record it’s appeared on in three years and it hasn’t come close to wearing out its welcome.
The full band set opens tight and poppy and loosens up steadily from there. “Waiting On The World To Change” is spot-on, delivered with all the finger-snapping Marvin Gaye soul-pop goodness of Continuum’s studio version. “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” (a classic title) and “Why Georgia” both get straight-up readings that show off Mayer’s terrific songwriting chops.
As the set wears on, though, the band stretches out, giving a trio of Continuum’s strongest numbers -- “Gravity,” “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” and “Belief” – extended readings that explore new nooks and crannies of the songs that only reinforce the strength at their core. As on Continuum, “I’m Gonna Find Another You” makes a fine closer, a slow blues that textures its stock she-done-left-me lament with a generous dose of sass and horn-section panache. If you'd asked me five years ago, I never would have guessed I’d sit at this keyboard and compare John Mayer with B.B. King, but…! Yeah, I hear it. For real.
The Trio set repeats several songs from Try! and “Free Fallin’” doesn’t really work, but these are minor quibbles against the backdrop of an album this rangy and confident. Where The Light Is showcases an artist still testing the boundaries of his musical persona and finding new ways of presenting his music to the world. Listening in while talent of this caliber plays in the sandbox is a genuine joy.