Live Review: John Mayer + Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - Allphones Arena (24.04.14)

For many, the music of John Mayer has long been the soundtrack to life, full of raw, honest songs which are packed full of emotion. Such is the songwriting that has made him a household name and one of the most prominent figures in popular music today.

As a sideshow to his appearance at this year's Blues & Roots Festival, Mayer played Sydney for the first time in four years, packing out Allphones Arena and attracting a very varied crowd. You had the kids – like the pair seated next to me (who really didn't enjoy the support act, mind you) – who were more concerned with how Mayer looked and whether or not he would play his biggest hits; and then you had the older folk – the ones who would cheer at every astute guitar solo, fawn over every musician on stage; and, most importantly, know when to be quiet.

Support act Grace Potter & The Nocturnals rallied up quite a following during the Blues & Roots festival, bringing her grungy attitude and blending it beautifully with superb blues-rock – throwing in a little bit of soul and country for good measure.

Potter's punchy vocals would seamlessly shift from smooth to rough, and back to smooth again, as she took us through her edgy blues-rock tunes, these were supplemented with constant and relentless guitar solos, threaded throughout the loosely-structured set with aplomb.

What the kids next to me obnoxiously called “self-indulgent” (completely incorrect usage of the term) was one of the highlights of the night; the set-closing moment saw every musician on stage crouching around the only drum kit on stage and ganging up on it; beating it in unison until a loud, raucous rhythm began to unfold. It was an incredible showcase of the chemistry between Grace Potter and The Nocturnals and the perfect way to cap off an excellent support set.

John Mayer's excellent band – which included super talented guitarist Zane Carney - walked out onto stage with Mayer walking slowly behind. The man of the hour looked quite taken by the intimidatingly loud ovation that echoed throughout the arena; it was obvious the past four years of not having him tour down here has had a bottle-up effect.

With a simple smile, Mayer began; and as soon as he let those smooth vocals glide through to us, the screams only became louder. The pop sensibilities of “Queen of California” and nostalgic hit “No Such Thing” began things on a high note, and set the standard very high continuing into the delicious twang of “Wildfire”. Mayer's popper hits are polarising at times, but in a live setting there's nothing not to love. John uses his prodigious guitar skills well as he sucks in and out of solos, with the raw passion he has for the instrument painted on his expressive face. Closed eyes and a whole lot of jaw movement, Mayer looks completely enamoured when he's sliding up and down his prized instrument.

A beautiful cover of Eric Clapton's “Promises” was updated with John's charming voice and some precise guitar work, soothing us despite the poignancy of the classic.

A bit of a jam to showcase the band's tightness exploded straight into the opening chords of “I Don't Trust Myself With Loving You,” to which the crowd lost their minds. The sensual soul-infused track was a clear favourite and an undeniable highlight, extending by each musician on stage as they added elements to really drive the song into the arena environment.

Even louder was the ovation for “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room;” thankfully the excitement fizzled down and Mayer was left to conduct a perfect live translation of the incredibly poignant song.

His popular live cover of Beyonce's “XO” obviously went down a treat, even though it seemed to take fans awhile to recognise the lyrics.. The acoustic cover saw a sole white light shining down on Mayer as he sat guitar in hand, totally lost in the lyrics and bringing his own charm to the now-classic pop song.

A short tale about reviewers claiming Mayer is too soft yet wanting him to play “My Body is a Wonderland” coaxed us for the arrival of one of his biggest hits, for which he said he probably wouldn't write in this day and age. Nevertheless, Mayer is proud of the song and states that it captures an innocent time in his life. ”I'm going to play it from the authentic heart of this song,” Mayer began, as he drew us all in close for the an acoustic version of the sexually-charged slow jam.

It was almost too soothing at this point, with the atmosphere now floating along with soft easy-listening rock dominating the set, so a well-timed inclusion of up-beat “Vultures” was a welcome moment that had many up out of their seats.

Teetering between songs which had him as the main star, to songs which included the proficiency of his band, the performance played out as a wholly satisfying experience for both diehard and casual fans of this ubiquitous musician. While his older material is what proved to be the best musically, Mayer's set list showcased the fact that he has remained a consistently great song-writer throughout his career, and as long as he holds that talent close, it's almost impossible not to like – or least appreciate - his compelling works.

Incredibly self-aware, he filled any time between songs with casual chats about his music, himself, and why he loves making music; turning the arena into a small, intimate venue and giving fans a hundred reasons to love him more than they already do.

With a worthy 16 songs, Mayer left us for only a moment, cheering in complete darkness until he came back for an excellent three-song encore which ended with one of his most mature, stylish songs to date - “Gravity.”

Four years since he has toured here, and seven years since I've been to one of his concerts, John Mayer successfully showed Sydney that his talent is infinite; and now that he has a completely sound touring band to back him up, his songs have enjoyed the best live translations yet. There are times when his vocal improvisations can get a bit annoying, with Mayer stretching certain vocals and brushing over others, but with a set list like this, it's hard to be mad at anything this masterful musician does.

Set List
Queen of California
No Such Thing
Promises (Eric Clapton cover)
I Don't Trust Myself With Loving You
Dear Marie
Edge of Desire
Slow Dancing in a Burning Room
XO (Beyonce Cover – Acoustic)
Your Body is a Wonderland (Acoustic)
Who Says
Half of my Heart
If I Ever Get Around to Living
Waiting on the World to Change
A Face to Call Home

Drifting Blues (Eric Clapton Cover)
Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967

Photos by Jason Li for the AU review. Full photo gallery can be found HERE