The truly great musical artists in history tend to evolve from this, to that, to the other thing.
Take the legendary Bob Dylan. He started his career as a hardcore folkie, disappointed legions of fans when he went electric, then settled back into the realms of country music, roots-rock and a few years later, gospel. He delved into swamp-rock grooves with shades of New Orleans-style mysticism, and in recent years, has dabbled in swing jazz and Christmas carols. It seems there is nothing “Bobby D” can’t, or won’t, do.
While old-school music lovers might scoff at the comparison, John Mayer, who is tonight’s headliner at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, has proven to be just as mercurial in his 20-plus-year career.
There’s the baby-faced, acoustic singer-songwriter who seemed to evolve overnight into a pop superstar with hits like “Your Body is a Wonderland” (2002) and “Daughters” (2003), earning Grammys along the way. His early albums (such as “Room for Squares,” his major-label debut) and hits have a Dave Matthews-type quality, and established him early on as the kind of sensitive heartthrob many guys love to hate.
Longing to be taken more seriously as a guitarist, he moved into the blues vein, and started jamming with giants like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and B.B. King. He also collaborated with hip-hop artists, and his style took on more of an edge. The album “Continuum” (2006) reflects a mix of R&B guitar and lyrics that evoke the idealism of Marvin Gaye (“Waiting for the World to Change”) without completely losing the pop spirit that put him on the map. The album also pays homage to Jimi Hendrix (“Bold as Love”), giving Mayer a chance to show off what he could do with an electrified six-string. (Another noteworthy song: “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” which dreamily epitomizes the end of a doomed relationship.) “Continuum” perhaps was fated to be a huge-seller worldwide and a Grammy winner, and of course, it was all those things and more.
The record sales died down a bit over the next several years, but Mayer pressed on, soaking up various forms of music. Mayer even dabbled in country influences with “Paradise Valley” (2013), which contains the Dylan-esque tune (think “Nashville Skyline” period) “Dear Marie,” the J.J. Cale-cover “Call Me the Breeze” and the Texas-swing influenced “You’re No One ’Til Someone Lets You Down,” which no doubt was influenced by the legendary Ernest Tubb. By 2015, after two decades as a professional musician, primarily as a solo artist, it appeared there was nothing Mayer couldn’t do — somewhat like Dylan.
And then Mayer opted to join a jam band. The last few years have seen him playing the Jerry Garcia role with some of the remnants of the nucleus of the Grateful Dead: singer-guitarist Bobby Weir and drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. As Dead and Company, they are bolstered by two necessary elements, Oteil Burbridge on bass and Jeff Chimenti on keyboards, who add a lot of flair to the original Dead sound yet play as faithfully as one might hope. Mayer has brought new legions of younger fans into the larger-than-life Dead experience; indeed, an incarnation of The Dead is packing stadiums and other types of large venues again.
Geoff Hanson, longtime on-air personality and development director for KOTO-FM, Telluride’s community radio outlet, may be one of the biggest Dead fans on the planet. Through that lens, he has studied, and come to appreciate, John Mayer. (Not all Dead fans hold Mayer dear, of course: Who can replace the beloved Jerry?)
“He started out as a pop artist,” Hanson said earlier this week. “His big hit was ‘Your Body is a Wonderland’ and you can’t get much more bubble-gummy than that.”
Hanson recalled Mayer’s promise many years ago, when accepting a Grammy, that his music would get better.
“Think about it: In the last decade, how many rock bands or artists have gotten big? Not many,” he said. “Mayer’s a smart guy. He played on his looks, wrote some sappy songs, won a few Grammys, and then he made a hard turnover to the blues.”
To Hanson, the “Continuum” album was the critical breakthrough of Mayer’s career that won over many doubters. “People said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s time to reconsider this guy as a real talent,’” he said.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that some of the biggest people in the music business, such as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, came to regard Mayer as “the real deal” on lead guitar, Hanson said.
He noted that Mayer was hanging out backstage in 2015 when Weir, Phil Lesh and other remaining members of the Dead joined forces with Phish’s Trey Anastasio and other special guests for gigantic stadium concerts in Chicago as part of the “Fare Thee Well” reunion shows. They also performed similar mega-concerts in San Francisco.
When that collaboration was done, Weir needed a new partner to continue bringing the Dead’s music to giant venues. Mayer had worked with Weir, studied the music and was ready to be the new Jerry, so to speak.
“The Dead needed a star like John Mayer to play big arenas,” Hanson said. “Bobby had been playing smaller arenas as the band Further. Then they did the Fare Thee Well shows.
“Now they’re the biggest touring band around. They’ve made a lot of money these last three years.”
Hanson has particular praise for Mayer’s work on Dead concert mainstays like “Althea,” “Terrapin Station” and “Alabama Getaway.” At Folsom Field in Boulder, where Dead & Co. played two shows in July, longtime Deadheads generally lauded the newfound energy that Mayer brought to the music as well as the overall concert atmosphere. It seems that “Shakedown Street,” the informal retail strip outside of the concerts where hippies and others sell tie-dye blankets and grilled-cheese sandwiches, is alive and well these days.
There have been minor criticisms about Mayer’s stage demeanor — he hops excitedly during certain songs and makes unusual facial contortions — but no one is picking on his lead guitar abilities.
“His stage theatrics are a little annoying,” Hanson said. “Whatever it takes, I guess. Still, they wouldn’t be playing huge arenas without John Mayer. He’s the draw.”
He said Mayer doesn’t copy Garcia’s licks note for note; he tends to play on the fringes of Jerry’s original leads. Garcia was improvisational and rarely played the same way from night to night at the live shows anyway.
But there was a definite tone and style to Garcia’s guitar leads, and Mayer has captured it, according to Hanson. “He’s got Jerry’s tone nailed,” he said. “He’s also taking the style and doing his own thing with it.”
Overall, Mayer is a musical force with which to be reckoned, he said, and shows where he appears as a solo artist or those with Dead & Co. are definitely worth attending.
“I’ll put it this way: If you judge John Mayer by the company he keeps, he is one of the greatest musicians playing today,” Hanson said. “The respect this guy gets from people like Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo, J.J. Cale … that’s all there really is to say about the guy. He’s a younger dynamic, and they’ve all sort of acknowledged that he’s the link to today’s popular culture from the blues.”
Which John Mayer will show up tonight: the mega pop star who makes the young girls cry, the respectful bluesman or the jam-band specialist who has come to light over the last few years?
Or will we see a consummate entertainer who can move deftly between musical genres without blinking an eye?
One will have to show up at Snowmass Town Park to find out.