It was a night of infectious music at the crossroads of poetry-infused pop and ferocious rock. It was a night of tender homages to musical forebears. It was an outdoor summer concert with an encompassing chill that brought couples and besties close, embracing while watching the cavalcade of talent on stage.
The Darien Lake Performing Arts Center was the venue for a gorgeous (visually, sonically) double bill on Tuesday night with John Mayer headlining, and Phillip Phillips opening. What the guitar-toting bandleaders share is jaunty song crafting, part of an inescapable soundtrack of our collective pop culture landscape. Mayer and Phillips also share stage time with jaw-droppingly talented musicians.
Vibe-setting preset songs for Mayer’s two-hour-long show included the Animals’ “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” John Denver’s “Country Roads” and Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” We were in for a contemplative wild ride. The lawn section suddenly, collectively, screamed as a guitar tech took center stage: The crowd was amped up.
Mayer and band hit the stage amid a faux rocky Wild West setting underneath a projection of a starry night, replete with shooting stars. Some in the band were duded up in woolen ponchos, while Mayer was in his best Hendrix-inspired hippie-gypsy garb with torn jeans, a jacket worthy of a small town sheriff, and head scarf.
This is Mayer’s “Born and Raised World Tour,” named for his 2012 studio release. He mentioned several times throughout his set the pending release (and availability of tracks online) of this year’s “Paradise Valley,” stalled because of his well-publicized vocal issues.
“Wildfire,” his jaunty love song and first track on “Paradise Valley,” was a perfect opening with its welcoming lyrics. “ ’Cause a little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about.” Each song was an opportunity for the eight players to spread out sonically for long, textured jams. Mayer, rhythm guitarist Zane Carney (nearly obscured by poncho, guitar and long hair), drummer Aaron Sterling and keyboardist Chuck Leavell were the standouts.
Mayer’s reedy voice on his naked love song “Half of My Heart” bled into R&B guitar-based “Vulture,” melting into a surprise, swinging rendition of “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” by the Grateful Dead – the Jerry licks attacked with rock ferociousness. It was the first of several loving tributes to those in the rock Pantheon: “Stop This Train” (with Mayer the lone player on stage under dramatic side spotlight) ended with a portion of Simon and Garfunkel’s perfectly placed “Homeward Bound.”
Famed for his loose lips, Mayer could not help delving into a micro-lecture on the act of worrying: “We should master the moments we should not be worrying about … there’s a difference between worrying and not caring. As I get older (he’s 35) I have a smaller swath of people, places and things that I worry about. Be carefree. I’m not even worried about making sense right now.” Then it was on to “Age of Worry” on “Born and Raised.”
His early bluesy “Gravity,” reinterpreted with great 1970s-era Motown funk, was one of the set’s high points. Before ending with encore songs “I Don’t Trust Myself” and “Face to Call Home,” Mayer praised the ardent fans before him for being “sophisticated and cool.”
Commanding Phillip Phillips opened his powerful set with “Hold On,” promising to “try to warm it up for you tonight,” and then launching into his hit “Gone, Gone, Gone,” the crowd joining in for a chorus of woos at song end. There was a brief segue into the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” before a power jam of Phillips and bandmates that called to mind the rock-to-soul ethos of Dave Matthews Band.
Phillips’ simmering and sexy cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” and a Southern rock exploration of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” blended well with his optimistic originals. He ended the note-perfect set with his stratospheric hit “Home.”