Concert review: John Mayer sounds better than ever

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"Your Body is a Wonderland," Taylor Swift, freewheeling interviews with Playboy magazine, a throat granuloma ... that all comprised the successful though ultimately troubled Phase I of John Mayer's career.

He's eased into what he's deemed Phase II, standing in a Montana field wrapped in a poncho like Clint Eastwood and rediscovering himself as a jam-rocker, right down to the Grateful Dead cover.

That's the John Mayer who arrived at the First Niagara Pavilion Sunday night for his first show here in three years, and by far his most dazzling musically.

Arriving on a set with a vibrant screen beautifully lit with stars, he led the show with "Wildfire," a sparkling song that grooves like a Paul Simon "Graceland" song with loopy Jerry Garcia-flavored guitar solo.

The country-psych Garcia sound would re-emerge numerous times, on "If I Ever Get Around to Living" and on "Waiting on the Day," a standout from the new album, "Paradise Valley," that felt like one of the Dead's big soaring ballads. It clearly showed up on the funky cover of "Going Down the Road Feelin' Bad" that did the Dead proud and segued beautifully into the majestic blues of "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room," which he briefly interrupted for a fan marriage proposal in one of the first rows.

Although Mr. Mayer is a full-blown guitar hero, he had two other guitarists on stage, including Doug Pettibone doubling on pedal steel, to turn songs like the slow, soulful "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" and "Queen of California" into ferocious jams.

Mr. Mayer dipped into Dylan's bag with the stunning guitar-harmonica ballad "Born and Raised" and "Dear Marie" (shades of "Buckets of Rain") and paired with his pedal steel player for a gentle take on Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'."

At one point, seeing the crowd grooving along to "Something Like Olivia" and feeling their acceptance for his new vibe, he said, "You guys totally get it."

He talked about "keeping yourself closed off from negative energy" and keeping "a clean Google history." It seems to be working for him as he's sounding better than ever.

It was weird to have Dave Matthews opening for John Mayer. Oh wait, that was Phillip Phillips, another in a stream of "American Idol" products who sounds absurdly like Dave, who must not be very pleased about this development.

Mr. Phillips, who has copied Mr. Matthews from the vocal inflections to the way he moves with his guitar, has more going for him than the previous copies with a pair of anthemic folk-rock singles -- "Gone, Gone, Gone" and "Home" -- that are on the radio almost constantly.

They highlighted his 50-minute opening set that found him jamming with a multi-racial band that boldly has no sax (trumpet instead) and has yet to add a violin player with dreads. On songs like "Man on the Moon" and "Get Up Get Down," they rocked a good deal harder with more complexity than you'd expect from an "Idol" winner. He tossed in all or part of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give it Away," Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" and Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On," which led into the set-closing "Home."

Dave Matthews would be wise to not take a year off from touring, or Mr. Phillips might go out playing DMB songs.


Scott Mervis:; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg. First Published August 26, 2013 4:15 AM


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