At the beginning of his Saturday night concert at the Marcus Amphitheater, John Mayer gave the obligatory greeting: "How y’all feel, Milwaukee?"
But the real question on everyone’s minds was, of course, how do you feel, John?
Tonight marked the end of Mayer’s three-year hiatus from touring, a break caused in part by granulomas on his throat. He rewarded his patient fans with an epic, honest two-hour set that included some beloved hits and also some obscure tangents – both of which seemed to be equally appreciated by the crowd.
Taking the stage in blue jeans, a denim shirt and a double bandana tied around his head, Mayer played before a video backdrop of mountains and various astral movements and animated UFOs. That whole setting – plus his increasingly blues-rock vibe – made the whole thing just a few acid trips away from being a ‘70s psychedelic send-up.
The lengthy set featured frequent guitar solos and other embellishments that often turned a three-minute song into a six-minute one. Still, no one was complaining. Sure, some folks called out requests about 90 minutes in (they never did get to hear "Your Body is a Wonderland") but who can blame them? All in all, the crowd seemed to be digging what Mayer was dishing up. And it was clear he dug them right back.
He started off with "Queen of California" from his 2012 album "Born and Raised," released just before his diagnosis. This tune set the tone for what would be a markedly bluesier, folksier John Mayer than many casual fans might expect. From there he went into "Something Like Olivia" and "Waiting on the World to Change."
The latter performance was especially impressive live; I have to admit that after working retail in 2007 and hearing that song at least six times a day piped throughout the store over the radio, I’d grown a little weary of it. Tonight, Mayer changed my mind. He’s a more able guitarist than most people realize – a really good one, in fact – and this version of "Waiting" was more profound; I thought it was less buoyant and more heavy on the instrumentals.
Mayer seems to have an almost spiritual experience when he performs. With his head tilted back and his eyes closed, it’s clear this is a deeply meaningful thing to him –- maybe now more than ever. In the first half of the concert there was minimal audience interaction, and he even turned away from the crowd at certain points for extended guitar solos.
His status as a sex symbol is obvious (the crowd was largely comprised of young women and their moms, and they were all squealing pretty loudly) but he doesn’t buy into it himself. He seemed, at first, to be almost paranoid about crowd-mongering.
But as the night continued, he really opened up. I think he was digging the vibe of the amphitheater and felt safe with the audience, and we eventually got a few glimpses of the incisively witty John Mayer we’ve heard about.
He played a lot of new music, including "Waiting on the Day", a mellow, catchy tune in keeping with his typical discography. Another new song, "Wildfire,’ was really popular with the audience. "That was a very wonderful, charming reception to a song you’ve never heard before," Mayer told us.
He disappeared halfway through the concert, returning in a few minutes. "Sorry," he said. "I drink water now, so I had to go to the bathroom. I apologize for that interruption, now that I drink something that actually hydrates me. Turns out, water’s not so bad for you. Not for you guys, though – you guys party on."
He played "Born and Raised," the title track from his latest album, a song which he revealed he had never gotten the chance to perform in public before because of his illness last year.
"You don’t have to worry about it, Milwaukee," he sang to us before going into "The Age of Worry." "You can tie two bandanas around your head." The lyrics to that particular song were featured on the video screen behind him. It was a fitting touch. On "Age of Worry" and others – particularly "If I Ever Get Around to Living" he was truly having fun, and it was clear that this was a performer who seemed to be remarkably at peace with his life, his art, his fans and himself.
He thanked his fans for sticking with him through the last few years, which he described as "not easy." "It’s been many months I’ve dreamed of this night," he said. "And I never dreamed it could be this good."
He closed the show with "Gravity," clearly the biggest hit of the evening. He dedicated his encore, "A Face to Call Home" to "my Katy" whom he praised for her patience and assistance during his recovery.
I’ve never seen Mayer in concert before, so I asked my friend Kara, a huge fan, to tell me what she thought of the evening. "He’s really matured since the last time we saw him. He was sincerely gracious," she told me.
"Last time, he knew he was good and everyone loved him, but this time he has so much more to be thankful for. For him to put out an album and not be able to promote it must have been horrible and scary. Finally, now, a year later, he’s able to sing those songs for his fans."
I think the fans were every bit as grateful.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.