There are few things cooler in the live music world than seeing your favorite acts perform solo, stripped-back shows. As much as everybody loves the Production and Music that comes with a full-scale band performance and production, there are few things like seeing a performer you enjoy playing in a more intimate venue accompanied only by their voice and instrument(s) of choice.
At their best, these sets are something like an exceptional episode of VH1 Storytellers, giving the audience the chance to hear their favorite hits and deep cuts in a new light (no pun intended), while allowing performers to step out of their comfort zones and offer those fans truly unique experiences they wouldn’t get at a “normal” show.
On Saturday night in Saint Paul, John Mayer accomplished these goals and more. Though the venue (The near 20,000-capacity Xcel Energy Center) was not one you’d usually expect this type of gig to take place in, Mayer’s comfortable performance made it feel more intimate.
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Mayer’s primary weapons on this night were his array of (mostly) acoustic guitars and his deep catalog of songs. Though naturally there were less fretboard fireworks than you’d get at an electric Mayer show (or a Dead and Company stadium gig for that matter), his playing was still dexterous, if generally mellower throughout.
The songs themselves were the main story of the show. Mayer’s career has taken many twists and turns (Pop albums, blues trios, americana albums and Dead and Company, among them), and though he is known to be a talented singer and exceptional guitarist, he is and has always been first and foremost a songwriter. Though his catalog isn’t bulletproof, it’s deep (8 studio albums), and filled with hits and fan favorites accrued over 20+ years.
With a catalog like that, an artist has a lot of flexibility in terms of what they play, especially on a solo tour. Mayer has been embracing that on this run, shifting setlists from night to night, and allowing for spontaneous moments throughout (Requests! In Arenas!).
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On this night, the selections were strong, drawing from the entirety of that catalog and beyond, from Room for Squares (“Why Georgia” was an early highlight) to Sob Rock, to everything in between. No matter which era of Mayer you prefer, you likely went home satisfied.
He even played a new song (“In the Neighborhood”) that he’d never played before. That digging into the catalog old and new combined with the casual, sometimes spontaneous feel of the show played well with the crowd, a significant portion of whom seemed as excited to hear some deeper cuts as they were “Daughters” (though to be clear, the crowd ate up the radio hits).
Though the two-hour set was all about Mayer’s songs, a pair of choice covers added interesting flair. These were Jackson C. Frank’s melancholy folk cut “Blues Run the Game” and (of course) the Tom Petty anthem “Free Fallin.” The former, making what I am confident will be its only appearance in a Minnesota hockey arena this year, was a genuinely interesting inclusion to the set that segued nicely into Born and Raised opener “Queen of California” while the latter closed the encore with the kind of singalong only a Tom Petty song can Inspire.
The fact that “Free Fallin” itself was a callback of sorts to Mayer’s catalog (it appeared on his 2008 live album Where the light Is) fit in well with the overarching dynamic of the set. This was a set for the Mayer-heads, and the Mayer-heads only. They’d have it no other way.