Near the midpoint of last evening's sold-out concert in Camden, New Jersey, featuring "adult contemporary" artist Sheryl Crow and bluesy rocker John Mayer, I realized I was perhaps not the best person to be reviewing such a performance. As I watched two middle-aged women tango in the nearby aisle while Crow belted out the seventh or so in a long set of hits — to the delight of the audience — my unfamiliarity with her work combined with a dawning realization of my complete ignorance of Mayer's career-launching first album to cast the upcoming hours in a drearily humdrum light. It was loud, the wind was picking up, and the light sprinkle of rain threatened to turn into something far more sinister. Would I risk hearing loss and face overpriced concessions for naught?
Opener Mat Kearney (one "t") started things off promptly at 7 PM with a completely undistinguished collection of U2/Coldplay-ish guitar chords and keyboard riffs strung together by remarkably verbose utterances that could have been quite interesting, had I been able understand more than two of every ten words. Yes, the amplification system of this particular concert had the unfortunate effect of drowning out lyrical subtleties in throbbing waves of sternum-shaking, low-end noise. Kearney could have yelled his way over it, as Crow and Mayer did later, but then that didn't seem his style.
One of the weaknesses of multi-act shows is the downtime required for the changeovers. In this case, Crow took a full forty minutes to erect her massive projection screens and tune her string section before things were ready to resume after Kearney had exited the stage. Then, with a flash of light and no small amount of screaming from the thousands of adolescent girls in attendance, she began to sing… something that sounded very ordinary. Relieved of any pent-up enthusiasm for Crow's performance, I began to notice the constantly changing images on the screens behind her.
They were nifty, I decided. Very nifty.
In fact, the graphics on those immense white squares were far more interesting to me than nearly anything she sang that night. Abstract, swirling circles became swaying trees became panning street maps of American cities, always moving and fancifully imaginative. Aside from one dreadfully "political" number accompanied by supposedly inspirational quotes by Gandhi, Teddy Roosevelt, and others, I was rarely bored by Crow's time in the spotlight, though it did go on for too long certainly wasn't what I had come expecting to see. Well-known popular favorites like "Soak Up the Sun" and "If It Makes You Happy" even offered the opportunity for a chummy and silly, if a bit hollow, sing-along.
But then at last Crow set aside her guitar and departed; we were indeed "ready for some John Mayer," a response to her teasing inquiry, though more waiting was in order before the shaggy-haired one would greet the eager throng (myself included). Workers shuffled about the crowded stage, removing the screens, and hoisting large grids of squares into their place. After a half-hour or so, shadowy figures took their places, cheers and shouts flowed freely, and an effortlessly cool John Mayer started the evening's main event off with a suitably boisterous, crowd-pleasing rockathon.
Not that I knew what it was, of course (probably a cut from Mayer's first album Room For Squares, I decided). As a showcase for Mayer's formidable talents, it was at least enjoyable on a technical level if not an emotional one. The next few were in the same vein: foreign, yet still exciting. Finally, "Bigger Than My Body", off his second studio effort Heavier Things, came up, and I was captivated as Mayer improvised a dazzling solo that liberated the music from the constraints of the studio track, which seemed in that moment incredibly archaic and artistically lifeless by comparison; an artist's conception of a piece changes moment to moment, I realized in that revelatory flash of insight.
It would continue for quite a while, as the hit parade continued for the next hour: "Daughters," "Gravity," "Waiting on the World to Change," and "Clarity" came and went in a blur of old and new tunes. The jazzy bit towards the end of the latter was outrageously, unreasonably good, better even than on the album (where its brilliance thrills me time and again). It, the rest, and the others whose memory escapes me provided enough musical electricity to erase entirely my doubts, making them in hindsight both foolish and faithless. He is John Mayer, after all, a guitarist often likened to Jimi Hendrix in sheer talent.
With a "Good Night!" and a cheery wave, Mayer exited the stage just before 11:00. The applause continued for a good two minutes before he trotted back onto the stage for another round, with solo acoustic guitar this time. The soulful "Find Another You," from his upcoming album Continuum, was delightfully spare and intimate, bearing all the hallmarks of his best work. The band then returned to show off several more new pieces, most of which intrigued (though a few had me checking my watch alarmingly often).
By 11:15 the final chords were fading, the crowd was roaring, and the evening's pleasures were still wonderfully fresh in my mind as I scurried off towards the exit. It had been, I later ruminated, quite a time.