With such famous exes as Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Jennifer Aniston dotting his 18-year career as a pop music hitmaker, the headlines on John Mayer often used to be about who he’s dating. Before his Xcel Energy Center concert on Monday night, though, the news was all about who he’s been seeing on the side.
Mayer’s latest in a now-long line of shows at the St. Paul hockey arena came just a month after he wrapped up a stadium tour with Dead & Company. The 41-year-old singer/guitarist has sporadically performed with — and greatly upped his rock ’n’ roll street cred from — the Grateful Dead leftovers ensemble since 2015. His current solo headlining tour seems to suggest those tie-dyed outings are starting to wash off on him.
Just as the Dead has done since the dawn of acid, Mayer eschewed an opening act at Xcel Center on Monday so he could stretch out and play a two-set performance with his large eight-piece band, which included the veteran bassist Pino Palladino (ex-Who) and two drummers. And like the Dead, he threw in some re-imagined cover songs and some of his own deep cuts.
Mayer’s last album and subsequent tour stop at the X in 2017 — a goofy, book-themed performance split up into “chapters” — didn’t do much to keep his momentum going, and his Xcel Center audience fell this time to around 12,000. By contrast, though, he played a more straight-ahead career retrospective Monday and kept a laid-back attitude all night, sometimes to a fault.
“I like to turn these places into living rooms,” he said near the start of the show — a goal he achieved early on, in terms of it being a concert where you could too easily fall asleep in your seat.
While the opening tune “Queen of California” had a Dead-like hazy groove to it, much of the rest of the hourlong first set was shockingly mild and mellow, even by Mayer standards. It didn’t help that much of the material in it came from that tepidly received 2017 album, “The Search for Everything.”
Songs like the toothless “Helpless” and the vaguely bluesy “Changing” sounded like Eric Clapton’s most beach-bummy work of the late-’70s and ’80s. Even the viciously titled 2006 cut “Vultures” came off like as it was actually written with seagulls in mind, with a lightly swaying groove and breezy guitar parts.
The most exciting moments in the first set were the folksier, soft, happy-strummer ditties that were easy for fans to sing along to such as “Why Georgia” and “Who Says” — the kind of warm-blanket tunes that used to earn Mayer rampant radio play locally on Cities 97 before the station switched formats more to his ex-girlfriends' songs.
Ever so slightly, the volume, tempo and hackeysacker-party-readiness picked up in the 90-minute second set. But not before Mayer played his eyebrow-raising acoustic ode to daughters (titled “Daughters”) and a slow, melodramatic acoustic version of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” that sounded tailored to a funeral. (Similarly soft but brighter snippets of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” and Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” followed later.)
Things finally turned electric in a big way in a rocked-up “Belief,” which was followed by more up-tempo hits such as “No Such Thing" and "Still Feel Like Your Man," and several fine, extended jammers.
Among the jammy highlights were “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” — with truly simmering, David Gilmour-like soloing by Mayer — and a fully Deadly version of “If I Ever Get Around to Living." The latter gave second electric guitarist Isaiah Sharkey a chance to shine, after he looked outright bored most of the night leading up to it.
As charming as ever between songs with his cool-nerd personality, Mayer delivered an extra-soulful “Gravity” near show’s end and made a heartfelt speech for it about how moved he is by his older tunes becoming “time capsules” for fans. Monday’s concert nicely encapsulated his many musical sides but probably won’t rank among his more memorable sets.