John Mayer is one of the more polarizing figures in popular music.
Women dig him because he’s tall, dark and poetic. But then he also comes across as a world-class jerk in interviews talking about his love of pornography and masturbation and comparing a famous ex-lover to crack cocaine.
Guys dig Mayer because he’s a guitar monster. But then he also sings cheesy, sappy pop songs and, frankly, never plays enough guitar in concert.
So which John Mayer showed up at Target Center on Saturday?
Well, let’s just say that it probably turned out to be a good date-night for the 7,300 people. Mayer offered diverse flavors of his guitar prowess and plenty of his sensitive side. But he didn’t do some of his early sentimental favorites such as “Daughters” and “Your Body Is a Wonderland” (cue the guys clapping), and he didn’t make any jerky statements between songs or perform “Paper Doll,” his alleged slam against Taylor Swift for her “Dear John” tune (cue the women clapping). Heck, he hasn’t done anything to embarrass himself in the past three years — and it wasn’t just doctor-ordered silence because of the vocal cord issues.
At 36, Mayer seemed more humble, more polite and less funny at Target Center. He’s known for his quick, ascerbic wit but he clearly has his filters turned up to 10. Only once on Saturday did his famous funnybone — and petulance — surface.
After some roadies wheeled out a baby grand piano, Mayer plunked a few notes and pronounced that the piano sounded like Doogie Howser. After a technician tried to fix it, the star dropped an F-bomb and ordered the piano removed.
“Oh my God, is that the saddest thing that ever happened?” he cynically quipped to the audibly disappointed fans. “There is something sad about watching a piano carried off unplayed. I would have been in hell. Oh, maybe you were wanting to hear that coked-out ’70s electric piano sound!”
C’mon people, no one goes an arena wanting to hear Mayer play the piano. He’s a guitar hero. On Saturday, he played some blistering blues-rock on his Stratocaster, some nifty jazzy passages on his acoustic guitar and some trippy Jerry Garcia-like country/jazz/psychedelic passages. He even played an electric guitar behind his back while an acoustic guitar was strapped in front of him.
But, like his pal Eric Clapton, Mayer never got carried away with his playing. Although his licks were expressive and tasty, they seemed less than heroic three days after rising hotshot Gary Clark, Jr. unleashed his fierce guitar fire in Minneapolis at First Avenue. But then there’s probably little overlap in Mayer’s and Clark’s crowds.
Playing in front of a giant backdrop showing computer-generated landscapes of the Western United States, the dark-haired dude in the pale-blue cowboy shirt and baggie khakis explored the rootsy, understated Americana vibe of his two most recent albums, 2012’s “Born and Raised” and this year’s “Paradise Valley.”
“Queen of California,” which opened the two-hour performance, suggested a country-rock collision of the Grateful Dead and Pure Prairie League. The Dylanesque “Dear Marie” was awash in nostalgic sweetness. “Waiting on the Day” sounded like a Bruce Springsteen lyric delivered by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. “Wildfire” started like a loose Dead country shuffle before igniting into a gospel clap-along campfire song.
Call it a new kind of sensitive for the East Coast-bred master of mellow who now calls Montana home.
Aided by slide and pedal steel guitarist Doug Pettibone (who played with Lucinda Williams for years) and electric guitarist Zane Carney (brother of “Spider-Man” on Broadway star Reeve Carney), Mayer did covers of Tom Petty and Citizen Cope. And the seven-time Grammy winner also sang “Happy Birthday” to one of his backup singers — but first offered a priceless tip at no extra charge: “Start low.” Otherwise, he warned that you’ll be vocally screwed when you try to reach that high note on “birthday.”
Imagine that, sensitivity, poetry, guitar eloquence, humor, humbleness and a free musical tip all in one night. That’s not polarizing. That’s the more measured, more likable John Mayer.
Opening Saturday’s concert was “American Idol” Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, whose sound is as redundant as his name. The 23-year-old Georgian is a complete Dave Matthews clone — right down to the goofy knock-kneed dancing. Phillips’ earnest voice on “Gone Gone Gone” and “Home” may have suggested Marcus Mumford’s of Mumford & Sons, but his strummy, jammy, slightly jazzy sound emulated the Dave Matthews Band’s — save for trumpet instead of saxophone.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719