“I always say, if you’re a songwriter, hope that your song’s a punch line,” John Mayer advised, sagely and sheepishly. “Because it pays good.” Acoustic guitar in hand, he stood alone onstage in a jam-packed college-basketball arena Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio. He was about to play The Song. Yeah. That one. The one you’re thinking of; the one he knows you’ve always thought of. It used to embarrass him, he told us, but he embraces it now: “It represents something in me that is no longer in me, but I get visitation rights.”
He didn’t sigh, but you could hear the sigh anyway.
“So let’s go back in time a little bit,” he concluded to rapturous cheers, “and visit our former selves.” And then he did it. Oh, hell yes. He played “Your Body Is a Wonderland.”
What a lovely, sturdy, charmingly idiotic song. A few of John Mayer’s other tunes charted higher, but no, “Your Body Is a Wonderland” is still The One. Sweet to the point of vapid, weightless to the point of pointlessness. It sounds exactly like him and yet somehow doesn’t represent him very well at all; you can like it quite a bit and still not blame him for hating it. Which he doesn’t, he insists, if only because he found other things to be more embarrassed about. “You have dived so deep into the music and brought me back into it,” he told the adoring crowd at another point, sounding way more vulnerable and sincere than most pop stars do when rambling in a my-fans-are-the-real-heroes vein. “You actually brought me back into these songs.”
John Mayer is on a very explicit Redemption Tour, capped off by Friday’s full release of his new album, The Search for Everything. It follows a couple dud Laurel Canyon–howling records, and a tempestuous and ill-fated romance with Katy Perry, and a brief but near-fatal period when his press interviews got extra embarrassing and not a little racist. “The lean years,” is how he described this enfant terrible era in a slightly less embarrassing New York Times piece last month.
That era began in 2010 and is ending … now? Maybe? Hopefully? Eight songs from The Search for Everything have been available for streaming for a few months now, and the only one to make much of a dent is “Still Feel Like Your Man,” a falsetto-driven and gently chooglin’ jam notable primarily for the video, in which John dances with two people in panda-bear costumes, which suggests he’s still grappling with that whole “respecting other cultures” thing. This sentient fedora has not solved all of his problems yet, but it’d be super boring if he had. At the very least, he has learned to love The Music again, and hopes in turn that you’ll learn to love him again.
The crowd in Columbus definitely loved him and seemingly had never stopped, is the thing. They stuck with Mayer for two-plus hours, in various stage setups: a full band with jammy Bonnaroo-type vibes, a solo open-mic-night-sweetheart deal, a bluesy and slightly raucous trio. “Wonderland” aside, he avoided the obvious, or at least more-obvious, hits: no “Daughters,” no “Waiting on the World to Change,” no “Who Says.” But his fans treated all the mellow and loping Search for Everything tracks like old standards, like old friends.
Literally nobody wants to hear this, but there’s something of an Adele thing happening with this guy, a weird divide between his profane and gregarious public persona and the classicist inoffensiveness of his music. He’s a soft-rocker with a volcanic pop star’s profile. His guitar solos are legitimately lithe and fiery and righteous, punctuated by a variety of excellent who-farted-oops-it-was-me Guitar-Solo Faces; his face contorts as though he’d just read another boneheaded interview with himself. But Wednesday night, he used his Jumbotron backdrop sparingly, loath to spend too much time broadcasting his slappable handsomeness in closeup out to the cheap seats. Say what you will, but he does not pander, musically or otherwise.
No, he’d rather be a Musician, a Guitarist’s Guitarist. The Search for Everything songs are expertly crafted and maddeningly even-keeled, triangulating mild classic rock and wedding R&B — like a stone-cold-sober Sly & the Family Stone, like Steely Dan if they didn’t hate themselves. As the Value City Arena’s curfew neared, it all looked to go down as a perfectly pleasant evening of tasteful, soulful rock music, one likely to leave most agnostics, if not quite rooting for him, than certainly not actively wishing him harm. But at the last possible minute, something genuinely spectacular happened.
Dave Chappelle showed up.
“John Mayer, welcome to the motherfuckin’ Midwest,” he began. Holy shit. The next 10 minutes or so were a delightful, bizarre, weirdly affecting ramble. Chappelle praised Mayer’s trio cover of “Bold As Love,” and banged out a few measures of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” at Mayer’s piano, and reminisced about Mayer’s famous cameo in the “white people dancing” Chappelle’s Show sketch.
And then things took a turn. “And today,” Chappelle continued. “I got some terrible news. My good friend Charlie Murphy passed away this morning. And everybody in comedy is heartbroken. So, John, you are a sight for sore eyes.”
And then he asked Mayer to play a song. A new song. A Search for Everything song he’d heard Mayer do a few months earlier, at a much more intimate gig in L.A. “The song that you sang that night reminded me of my friend Charlie Murphy,” Chappelle said. “Our friend Charlie Murphy.”
And then he asked us all to turn off our cell phones: “Let’s have a memory that only we get to have.” And so we did. (Sorry.) And then Mayer played “You’re Gonna Live Forever in Me.”
On paper, or on Spotify, this is a perfectly agreeable bit of Randy Newman whimsy, more Toy Story than Sail Away; it is gentle and whimsical and romantic enough if you can turn your brain off. But onstage, with a mournful Chappelle sitting there smoking a cigarette and soaking it in, and at least the vast majority of the crowd’s cellphones holstered, it was a moment, unguarded and unbearably sweet.
This was the best-case scenario for John Mayer, a fantastic musician and infamous man whose infamy keeps crowding out the musicianship. Somehow, he still commands enough goodwill, from his fan base to his famous friends alike, that he might inspire enough cosigns and surprise guest appearances and viral-for-the-right-reasons moments to actually achieve the gala comeback that The Search for Everything probably can’t manage on its own as a plain old album. His songs are never quite as hummable as his dumbass quotes are quotable. “I will call it a comeback,” Mayer had told us earlier in the night. “I will call it a comeback. Please call it a comeback.” But that comeback began in earnest only when Chappelle showed up and gave him another, more heroic task: cheer up the most famous stand-up comedian in America. You could see in that moment what Chappelle always seemed to see in Mayer: a rock star who’ll sing you the perfect song if he can only keep his foot out of his mouth for long enough.