A therapeutic return for John Mayer

Last time John Mayer stepped inside the cavernous Staples Center arena, he was dressed sharply in a black trouser-and-vest combo as he played a rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” 20 feet from the King of Pop’s casket.

Battle studies · Because of the artist’s romantic history revolving around Los Angeles, John Mayer’s appearance was more a therapy session. - Candice Harbour | Daily Trojan

It was a somber occasion then, and Mayer’s performance was subdued and perhaps a bit subpar for the singer who has been deemed the Eric Clapton of his generation. Yet the man also known for his obsessive, candid Tweets and shameless bravado did not open his mouth once through the nearly five-minute-long performance but let his fingers do the talking.

Mayer, however, did open his mouth six months later in a now-infamous Playboy tell-all interview that stoked many flames of Mayer’s past and sparked a number of fresh controversies. “Sexual napalm,” a reference to ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson, has quickly become a catchphrase in contemporary jargon while Mayer’s nonchalant dropping of the N-word made a cannonball splash in the African-American community. And who can forget the high-profile relationship with actress Jennifer Aniston, a tabloid sensation and an eventual heartbreak that still lingers almost a year after the couple’s breakup.

It’s easy to see, then, why Mayer’s performance at the Staples Center on Thursday night — his sole Southern California stop on his global “Battle Studies” tour — was a bittersweet return to the city that prides itself on being his harshest critic. Home to entertainment blogger Perez Hilton (an irritating foe for most celebrities) and his ex-lovers, the night was shrouded in both heartache and resentment radiating from a much-too-recent jilted past.

And even though Mayer still played to his fans, dancing his guitar over to all corners of the stage so every concertgoer in the sold-out arena could catch a glimpse of the pop musician, it was apparent that Thursday’s show was completely self-indulgent — and rightfully so.

“I’ve had my heart filled to the brim here, I’ve had my heart broken here,” Mayer said early in the show, his first of many confessions to the audience. “But I still can’t stop coming back here.”

It’s the stuff from which blues is born, and what unfolded Thursday was a group therapy session with 20,000 fans, most of whom did not know what they were in for.

In a move that would please hard-nosed audiophiles over album-buying fans, Mayer let his smokey vocals play second to his deft guitar playing, a quality of his that is often brushed-over, processed and subdued on his records.

The vastness of the Staples Center was quickly filled by Mayer’s intricate riffs and powerful shredding, the wailing of his electric guitar doing most of the talking for the evening.

The first taste of Mayer’s guitar prowess came in the soul-inspired “Vultures,” which began with a lengthy yet fluid intro, featured a hypnotic interlude with fellow guitarist David Lyons and ended, unexpectedly, with beat-boxing.

The lusty “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” was even more seductive than its recording on Continuum and was slowed to a languid yet emotionally charged pace that allowed Mayer to truly let go. His vocals revealed their first sign of honesty, forgoing their smooth refinement and instead cracked, strained and yelped as they searched octaves high and low and finally matched the blues sensibility of his instrumentation.

Another intimate moment came when Mayer brought out his acoustic guitar (thankfully) not for “Daughters” but for an untitled song dedicated to the loneliness of Los Angeles.

“L.A. breaking your heart. It sounds like a [Bob] Dylan song,” Mayer prefaced the track. “Raw but beautiful.”

It was obvious that influences ran deep throughout the night, as Mayer introduced “Battle Studies” with a verse and chorus off Dylan’s  “Just Like a Woman,” while “L.A. Song” suddenly flowed into Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” After strumming through a rather anti-climatic “Half of My Heart,” Mayer seamlessly transitioned into Fleetwood Mac’s ’70s standard, “Dreams.” Unfortunately, these songs were lost on the teens and 20-somethings that comprised most of the sold-out crowd.

Similarly, Mayer’s resounding eight-minute-long cover of Bill Withers’ R&B classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” was the standout performance of the night as Mayer and company grooved as uninhibitedly as if they were hanging out in someone’s garage. But it was during this impressive musical exhibition that most of the audience seemed to tune out.

Much like the humility found in folk musician Leonard Cohen’s recent performances, Mayer took time out from being a commercial superstar to acknowledge his fellow musicians onstage. Apart from “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the highlight of the night was drummer Steve Jordan (a Grammy Award-winner who once toured with Clapton) and his exhilarating solo jam session that became a several minute-long intro in “Waiting on the World to Change.”

“Gravity,” which Mayer has said to be the most important song he’s ever written, was a powerful if predictable choice to end the show. But after the standard verses and choruses, Mayer again threw his crowd-pleasing vocals aside and concentrated fully on his guitar. Toward the song’s end, Mayer suddenly placed his instrument on the ground and began to pluck and trace the strings with his fingers, as if a little kid experimenting with an unfamiliar toy. Completely focused to the point of becoming cross-eyed, it seemed there, stomach flat on the floor and his fingers swiftly sliding from one end of the fret board to the other, that Mayer was truly happy.

And as he left the stage with his guitar slung over his back and a heavy weight removed from his chest, it was certain that after months of unfiltered interviews and blogging slander, a little less conversation was in order for John Mayer.