Tuesday, 8 July 2008

CD & DVD Review: John Mayer - Where The Light Is - Live in Los Angeles

John Mayer Where The Light Is CD cover
Let me just say right at the start of this review that prior to this, I had absolutely no idea who John Mayer was. Had you mentioned him to me I would most likely have thought you were talking about John Mayall and that I had misheard you, or else you had developed some species of speech impediment. Quite how John Mayer has managed to slip under my radar, I don't know. An easy answer would be to say that he simply isn't that big over here in the UK, but to be perfectly honest I couldn't tell you how true that actually is.

This double CD set and/or DVD would appear to be the perfect introduction to John Mayer. Each has the same track listing and is divided into three distinct parts in which we see John Mayer perform firstly an acoustic set, secondly a set with the John Mayer Trio, and finally a set with his full band, all recorded at a show at the Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles, last December. As Mayer jokes in the DVD film, he is effectively his own support act.

So, to start, I uploaded the CD into iTunes and gave it an intensive listening to on my iPod.

But, oh dear! "Oh my God, how am I going to review this?", I said to myself. "I don't like it!"

I forgot about the album for a while, and listened to some other bits and pieces. As often happens when I don't have an inkling to listen to any particular album, I set my iPod to "Shuffle" whilst working one afternoon, and one song - with some great guitar playing - shuffled up and caught my attention. "Wow! What's that?" I said, and checking the iPod discovered it was one of the John Mayer Trio songs from the album that I had previously dismissed. The one song played in isolation from the rest of the album had made my prick up my ears, whereas when I'd played the two CDs straight through I found it all a bit too much to take in.

I decided it would be easier to review the DVD. Watching an artist play is nearly always interesting to me. I like watching what a guitarist does, how he plays, what techniques he uses. It's one reason I love to get up front and close to the stage at gigs.

The DVD is subtitled "A film by Danny Clinch", which to my mind is a bit pretentious. It's a live music video, so let's have less of this "film" talk. Unfortunately because there are pretensions at work here, we get unnecessary scenes of Mayer talking utter shite whilst driving his car and with a small yappy-type dog on his lap (is that legal?) and various backstage scenes interspersed between the songs every now and again. These I find highly annoying. He doesn't say anything particularly insightful or interesting, he's just providing inane soundbites probably on-cue from the film maker. This is not the kind of thing I want from a music video. I want the music, so let's have the songs uninterrupted please! Save the silly backstage stuff (e.g. Mayer choosing a wrist watch to wear on stage from a selection of about 20 or so) and the scenes of Mayer and his dog driving about talking bollocks to the DVD extras.

Or as the late Frank Zappa once said, "Shut up and play your guitar!"

Now the music is really quite good. The first three acoustic tracks are Mayer on his own and it's clear from the offset that his guitar playing is quite outstanding. It's fascinating to watch his fingers move and I'm dead jealous of the way he hooks his thumb over the top of the neck to play the bass notes on the low E string. He's joined by Robbie Macintosh on Dobro on the fourth song, and on the next David Ryan Harris joins in on additional guitar. (I'm reminded of The Talking Heads "Stop Making Sense" which begins with David Byrne playing guitar along to a ghettoblaster for the first song, and with each subsequent song an additonal band member joins him until the full band is present.)

The next section features the John Mayer Trio, which is Mayer on guitar and vocals, Steve Jordan on drums, and Pino Palladino on bass. Pino Palladino is a name I know from way back. He famously played the fretless "yoobeeedooo" bass on Paul Young's "Wherever I Lay My Hat (That's My Home)" back in the 80s, and in more recent years has joined Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry on stage with The Who following the sad demise of John Entwistle.

From this section it's obvious that John Mayer's guitar playing is not only informed by Jimi Hendrix, but that he must have studied Hendrix's playing in intricate detail. It's obvious from his playing, his mannerisms, his phrasing and on a visual level in his choice of guitars (e.g. Hendrix "Monterey" Strat replica, and Voodoo Strat with reverse headstock). Oh, that and the fact that he pulls off two very well executed Hendrix covers, "Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Bold As Love". All in all, the Trio set works incredibly well. It's exciting, the playing is fantastic from each of the three musicians, and there's lots of eye candy for guitar enthusiasts as Mayer plays a different guitar for each song (seven different Strats and a Guild Starfire). Yessir, this boy can play the blues.

John MayerThe final secton with the full band (two additional guitars, bass, drums, keys, trumpet and sax) I didn't enjoy anywhere near as much. Perhaps this is the poppier material, and I just have a preference for the edgier sound of the trio. Nevertheless, this final set still has its moments. Mayer coaxes some incredible sounds from his guitar, especially on "Gravity" where he plays a solo by bending the strings of his Strat behind the nut. We also see some great hammer-on soloing and a little violining going on.

The last three tracks see the band joined by Pino Palladino, so there's two bass players. I was trying to work out if they were playing different parts or just doubling up the same bass line, but I couldn't really tell. I've gotta say, the show was dragging on for me a bit by this stage. Mayer was thanking the audience for staying so late (the show must have been over-running). I was just sorry for those of them who had missed their ride home (I know what that's like, trying not to miss the last train).

So, to sum up...

He's a brilliant guitarist, let's make no mistake about that. I'm not decided on whether or not I like his voice, the jury is still out on that point, and I find some of the things he says to the audience and to the camera to be quite cringeworthy. (But then, at 30 years old, he's still a kid, right?)

John Mayer fans will love this CD and DVD, but they won't need me to tell them that. As a showcase for Mayer's music, it's a great collection, and the three sets idea is a neat one. I can also see that either the CD or DVD would be a good introduction to John Mayer for the curious.

Guitar fans will most likely get a lot out of the DVD in particular if they are like me and enjoy watching other guitarists play. And of course there are plenty of guitars to drool over (I counted at least eight Strats, one Guild, a Gibson semi, three Martins, and possibly a few others that I've forgotten about).

As I've already said, the Trio section was the most enjoyable for me, but I suppose that's what's good about this collection. Different people will like different parts.

Buy it here: CD / LP / DVD / Blu-ray

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