TAMPA — John Mayer has a slow hand and loose lips. He's Eric Clapton for the TMZ Age, a guitar virtuoso who rises and falls on his torpedo compulsion to act on instinct, brilliant solos and blabbing about exes included. Dude's a train wreck but a self-aware one, his talent and instability a constant can't-look-away duel for center stage.
The 32-year-old Connecticut native was among 12,500 friends at 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre on Friday, a shrieking girlstrong throng that's been doe-eyed and devoted to him ever since the shaggy lank first cooed the woo in 2001. To them, he's always just dreamy Johnny. "Thank you guys for standing up for me," he said at the end of the two-hour show.
Mayer imagines that most people call him unsuitable-for-print things; he might be right. In a disastrous Playboy interview, he used a racial epithet in what he thought was an intelligent — or at least benignly humorous — fashion; he later wept an apology onstage. He's also spent great chunks of magazine space dishing on former paramours, most notably Jessica Simpson, whom he referred to as "sexual napalm."
If you only follow Mayer through his dubious tabloid nuggets — or identify him via such hits as Your Body Is a Wonderland, which he winkingly allowed that men hate — it's easy to rag on him. But his live show revealed a different truth, or at least it likably packaged his offstage antics with his concert skills: Love him or hate him, the guy is a rock star.
Dressed in white T, cargo pants and an irony-free (I think) headband to keep his floppy brown curls out of his puppified brown eyes, Mayer entered not as a pop idol but a certified grunt, hitting his array of guitars with both a shredder's intensity and a prodigy's weakness for getting sucked into the guts of a song.
The girls were here to sing along to the hits, and he'd give them those over the course of a smart set list: No Such Thing, Waiting on the World to Change, Half of My Heart. But he and his killer seven-piece band had a far better time indulging in the extended burn of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Chile the jazzbo noodling of Do You Know Me and the blues-guitar coda of Slow Dancing in a Burning Room, which turned the venue into a cozy cocoon of l-o-v-e.
If he lost ladies to bathroom breaks, he didn't care — or at least he knew he'd win them back. His ecstatic solo face expressed each nimble lick, each whoosh of the whammy bar. He's a genuinely funny guy, but he kept his mouth relatively shut, maybe out of reparations, maybe because, these days, it's where he's safest.
"I have nothing to say at this juncture," Mayer announced at one point. "I'd just like to keep playing my guitar with my band."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.