“There’s a lot we could talk about,” John Mayer told the crowd Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl, but his plan, he added, was to keep the banter to a minimum.
A semi-legendary source of off-the-cuff (and sometimes off-color) stage chat, Mayer was putting some distance between himself and the guy who set off a spasm of negative publicity in 2010 with comments he made about his famous ex-lovers and his taste for pornography, among other topics.
The resulting backlash — along with a series of surgeries to remove a recurring growth on his vocal cords — led to an extended hiatus from the road, during which Mayer launched a kind of warm-and-fuzzy rebranding campaign.
Last year the singer-guitarist released “Born and Raised,” then followed it quickly with August’s “Paradise Valley,” titled after the remote Montana area where he recently bought a home. Both albums exude a self-conscious grown-up vibe, with lived-in roots-rock arrangements and lyrics about how his shadow days are over.
That quality carried over to Saturday’s concert, which concluded the initial North American leg of Mayer’s first tour in three years. Leading a seven-piece band complete with piano and pedal steel, he came on like a thoughtful folkie rather than the oily balladeer of “Your Body Is a Wonderland”; he even did a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” signaling a rustic sincerity further established by a video backdrop depicting a tranquil night sky.
Yet the old Mayer — the mouthy dude once known to drop into New York comedy clubs to try some stand-up — hadn’t quite been snuffed out. Almost immediately after declaring his no-banter policy, he found himself in a frisky back-and-forth with a female fan holding a sign announcing her 30th birthday.
And later he introduced his song “Dear Marie” with a knowing bit about what he called women’s inability to understand that men get more sensitive as they age.
Whether it’s a conscious effort or not, Mayer is wise to preserve this part of his persona; even more than his remarkable guitar playing, it’s what distinguishes him from the dullards he’s compared to — earnest singer-songwriters such as Jack Johnson, Gavin DeGraw and “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips, who opened Saturday’s show with a set of dreary acoustic rock.
That edge surfaced musically too in “Half of My Heart,” with echoes of Fleetwood Mac’s polished resentment, and a thrilling rendition of “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” that oozed menace. (With characteristic slyness, Mayer appended a bit of Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover” to the latter.)
Still, the chastening he seemed to acknowledge at the gig’s outset was real. He skipped a handful of appealingly defiant cuts from “Paradise Valley” — including one, “Paper Doll,” widely assumed to be about his relationship with Taylor Swift — that disrupt the redemption narrative of his recent work.
And in spite of a rumor that spread on Twitter before the concert, he didn’t bring out his current girlfriend, Katy Perry, to perform their sumptuous soft-rock duet “Who You Love,” in which the two stars declare that the Hollywood heart wants what it wants.
But if Mayer was moderating his most valuable impulses, at least that sense of restraint paid off in several beautifully compact guitar solos, most memorably the tense, fuzzed-out one he played in his song “Gravity.” Like Mayer himself, the solo didn’t go on for as long as it might have. But it carried plenty of force.
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times