I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world,” John Mayer sang in “No Such Thing,” the opening song of his sold-out Hollywood Bowl debut; over the next two hours, try as he might to prove otherwise, he never managed to be anything but a lightweight, pretty-boy pop star.
The L.A.-based singer-guitarist first came to prominence with his smarmy make-out ballad “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and has spent the past few years trying to live it down. He recorded a bluesy jazz trip album, and his most recent disc, “Continuum” (Aware/Columbia), saddled with the pretentious subtitle “Music By John Mayer” finds him musing on political attitudes, religious war and gravity. Songs from the new album make up most of the set. They all give him problems, but his instinct appears to be to simply shrug and use them as a deeper sort of pickup line.
Those furrowed-brow songs (“Waiting on the World to Change,” “Belief” and “Vultures,” among them) alternated with more mundane sorts of pickup lines such as “I Don’t Trust Myself (With Loving You)” and “Good Love Is on the Way”; regardless of which mode he was in, Mayer performed them with the same genial ease.
Often compared to Eric Clapton, Mayer certainly has the chops to back up that claim. But he’s Clapton without the fiery, passionate years in Cream and Derek and the Dominos and with a drawer full of “Wonderful Tonight”-inspired tunes.
Just how fine a guitarist Mayer can be was apparent during his cover of the R&B chestnut “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” His solo during the intro had a bluesy grit that was missing during the rest of the show. But when the verse kicked in, he threw in all sorts of jazzy chords and passing notes, and the band slipped into some breezy syncopation that sucked all the life right out of the band (not even the usually reliable Robbie Macintosh on second guitar could help) and song.
The music then settled into a kind of anodyne tastefulness intended to keep any sense of the real world at bay. It’s a strategy that may work in the boudoir but is deadly in concert. For the rest of the evening, the musician let the pretty boy win.