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Mayer goes blues, succeeds with new band

Observer Scene | Thursday, December 1, 2005

Those who are sick of the pop drivel that the plethora of banal singer-songwriters seems to keep releasing are probably in the majority. From Dave Matthews to Ari Hest, Ryan Cabrera and Jack Johnson, acoustic rock has become, in a word, boring. Yes, it’s catchy. But come on, where’s the innovation?

It seems John Mayer may have been asking the same question when he began planning his next release after the huge success of his sophomore studio album “Heavier Things” two years ago. One of the brightest singer-songwriters to emerge in 2002, Mayer led the way for folk-pop-rock to make resurgence in an age of boy bands and bloated rap. Naturally, Mayer is the first one out of that group to push the envelope in branching not just outside of his style, but outside of his usual genre.

Although “Heavier Things” was made famous by its mellow acoustic songs such as “Daughters” and “Clarity,” it also featured a few blues-based recordings that seemed to come naturally to Mayer -especially “Come Back to Bed,” which Mayer often performed live with blues legend Buddy Guy during the past few months.

Mayer has already won Grammy Awards, has numerous multi-platinum albums and legions of adoring fans. He could keep releasing ballads like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” for years and be a success. But for Mayer, his talent is not some type of machination producing catchy commodities – it’s a tool he’s constantly challenging and redefining. On “Try!” his first live album since 2003’s “Any Given Thursday,” Mayer takes a serious turn away from pop but doesn’t lose the melody and rhythmic sensibilities that make him so popular.

Forget about “Wonderland” and “No Such Thing” – Mayer’s new record is a true blues album. Not necessarily Mississippi Delta blues, Harlem blues or straight Chicago blues, “Try!” has hints of all of the past techniques but doesn’t limit its accessibility to the listener. Although it may not be pure blues, it’s the first major modern interpretation of the genre by a rock star since the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix experimented with it in the Seventies.

Full of meat and potatoes rock jams that allude to his heroes, “Try!” is an immediate classic because it’s a concept album that succeeds at not sounding like one. It’s most definitely a conscious move by Mayer – to mix up the sound of Buddy Guy with the tenacity of Clapton playing blues with Mayer’s own frantic fret-exploring tendencies.

The live album begins with a hooky up-tempo jam called “Who Do You Think I Was?” that immediately establishes the new Mayer sound. The song bounces between chord progressions and Mayer’s raw, but signature vocal delivery. Segueing into “Good Love Is on the Way,” the music has an anthemic vigor that reminds one of Phish and early Aerosmith.

“Wait Till Tomorrow” is a guitar lover’s dream with its innovative interpretation of a lesser-known Jimi Hendrix gem. Every time Mayer comes back to the riff he takes the song in a fresh direction, noodling along with his own vocal inflections. Mayer also wallows in blues ballads for the tracks “Vultures,” “Gravity” and “Another Kind of Green.”

Mayer only rehashes two songs from his previously released albums – “Daughters” and “Something’s Missing,” both of which are given the blues-treatment that tears away the wall of sound that imprisoned them on the studio albums and makes them creatures that flourish in the live setting. Palladino and Jordan are both experienced session musicians and revel in attacking the songs the trio wrote together with a muscular sound reminiscent of Cream and Humble Pie.

“Try!” would fit in any rock fan’s collection because it touches on so many levels of music history, as well as the sincere songwriting that is so often left out of blues in favor of emotion expressed solely through the six-strings of a battered Strat.

If a listener appreciates Derek and the Dominoes or Hendrix, they would truly enjoy the John Mayer Trio since they’d understand how progressive the music this generation’s guitar hero is cultivating.