Forty-five minutes into his performance at the Smoothie King Center on Wednesday, John Mayer described writing “Stop This Train” while incapacitated by kidney stones and a fever. As he spoke, he caught himself with “monologue hands” — his hands were stuffed into his pockets a la Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
When he’s onstage, Mayer’s hands should never be in his pockets. They should be on a guitar.
That was abundantly clear throughout Wednesday’s two-hour show. Mayer, either alone or as part of a trio or a septet, fingerpicked various electric and acoustic six-strings, delivering robust, crisp solos that spoke to his abiding affection and feel for blues-derived guitar heroics.
Unlike his social media offerings, they were consistently spot-on in terms of tone and taste. So, too, his rhythm guitar work, all of it highlighted by a flattering sound mix. Overall, he managed to stage a guitar showcase while still serving the radio songs that have enabled him to fill arenas for more than a decade.
Over the past two years, he has also moonlighted as the featured guitarist of Dead & Company alongside three surviving members of the Grateful Dead. His own shows are, by necessity, far less prone to improvisation. But neither are they static recitals.
He changes his set list nightly. In Nashville on Tuesday night, he covered Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” hours after Campbell’s passing. Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” has turned up during the acoustic section of other recent shows. At the Smoothie King Center, he broke out an unplugged version of the Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” instead.
By then, he’d already served up a slew of fine solos. In a black “Box of Rain” T-shirt — a nod to the Grateful Dead — black jeans, white sneakers and a hefty wristwatch, Mayer warmed up with a clean, B.B. King-esque solo during the second song, “Helpless.” He and fellow guitarist Isaiah Sharkey squared off during the tidy funk/rhythm-and-blues workout “Still Feel Like Your Man,” exchanging curlicue Afro-pop licks. David Ryan Harris, the band’s third guitarist, contributed to the tight groove of “Something Like Olivia.”
After 30 minutes, the band’s gear disappeared behind the video wall as Mayer took a turn alone. “Walking on the Moon” led to fan favorite “Daughters,” both marked by his fluid, nimble acoustic work.
The modest cheer that greeted a reference to his 2017 album “The Search for Everything” did not pass unnoticed. “Oh, mixed results,” he quipped, before voicing his opposition to greatest-hits albums: “Put it out when I’m dead. I’m still trying to make greatest hits.” The new “Emoji of a Wave” turned out to be a fine acoustic ballad.
A prerecorded video prefaced the show’s third segment, featuring the John Mayer Trio: Mayer, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan. The trio, Mayer mused on-screen, had achieved “almost mythical” status. That overstatement aside, Palladino, Jordan and Mayer locked in for a strong “Good Love Is On the Way.” A cover of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Wait Until Tomorrow" and the trio’s own “Vultures” were underwhelming by comparison. During “Vultures,” the large video screen was wasted on static head shots of the three musicians, rather than live footage of their playing.
The full band returned with “In the Blood” and “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You),” two of the set's weaker songs (tellingly, neither boasted any guitar work of note). He carved a tidy solo in “Half of My Heart,” followed by a bone-rattling workout in “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” that resolved right where it started.
Mayer said he hoped he’d played what everyone wanted to hear. “If we didn’t, I’m going to do this for my own peace of mind.” With that, he launched a truncated, solo acoustic singalong of his early hit “Your Body is a Wonderland.” “Why Georgia” and “No Such Thing,” the first single from his 2002 debut album, wrapped up the regular set.
“Love on the Weekend” opened the encore but was only an appetizer for what followed: a potent, slow-burn, soulful “Gravity," featuring some of Mayer's best singing of the night and a bombs-away solo. His influences were all there, but this tour de force, elevated by contributions from the full band and its two backing vocalists, was clearly his own creation.
He rendered the final “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me” alone at a white piano. There was no guitar, but no matter: By then, he’d already played plenty.