New Kid on the Block

John Mayer jumps from MP3 playlists to headlining at Avalon

At some point, every artist has to go through an awkward, halfway stage while he or she crosses the rift between anonymity and fame. A “not unknown, not yet a star” sort of phase. For John Mayer, that point seems to be now. Musically, Mayer’s concert at the Avalon on Feb. 28 was a treat to any fan of his laid-back style and emotion-infused songs. However, between songs, Mayer babbled mostly incoherent phrases that left the audience staring at each other in hopeless confusion. Who was the culprit here? Fame.

At 24, Mayer is just coming into his own, selling out club-sized venues in all parts of the country as he tours in the wake of his latest album, Room for Squares. Mayer’s maturity and confidence while discussing his life and career choices during a phone interview were sharply contrasted with the boyish wonder and starry gaze of the tall, lanky guy who appeared on stage. While Mayer may not know quite how to deal with his newfound fame as he transitions from being the solo, acoustic opener to the top name on the bill, his fans didn’t seem to care one bit.

John who? If you’ve never heard of John Mayer, the best cursory description would compare him to a young Dave Matthews: a handsome guitar strumming songwriter with a strong, distinctive voice. To add to the effect, Mayer’s lyrics are extremely personal, as songs like “Your Body Is A Wonderland” bare his sensitive nature and vulnerable side to anyone who will listen. At the show, girls screamed as John proclaimed, “I want to like crap, I want to be in love, I want to write bad poetry.” Will the hopeless romantic finally get the girl?

While Mayer seems to be walking on his cloud of fame these days, just a few years ago his future was incredibly unsettled. During his first year at Berklee School of Music, Mayer decided that his true goals of composing and performing were far from his current academic path. At the end of the year, he packed up and headed to Atlanta with a pretty big agenda. “I didn’t want to leave [Atlanta] till I had found out really if I could have made it there,” he said, “I basically gave up Berklee…and I had to parlay every one of those moves [after that point] into at least the hope of getting to some goal.” A few years later, Mayer has made it big, proving that a shot in the dark is still a worth a shot.

Mayer played only one show in Boston, although he didn’t hesitate to gush about his fondness for his college home. “Boston is one of my favorite places in the world. There was this complete gelling of where I was in my life, where I was musically and where I was geographically when I was in Boston…everything kind of swirled together and created a lot of my identity as a person and as a player.” In fact, for the middle third of the show, Mayer’s three-man band exited the stage and left him to play a solo set of songs that he wrote “just down the street” while he was at Berklee.

A few songs in, Mayer thanked his audience for not walking out after he played his only single “No Such Thing.” Mayer has gained a foothold on the radio, but his main fan base was admittedly created through the world of MP3’s. While he laments the fact that MP3’s often give a fan a one-sided and often irregular picture of how he usually plays a song, Mayer recognized that the medium is vital to the emerging artist. “It [MP3’s] made all the difference in the world to my career. I didn’t have to wait to be on a big record label before I had fans.” And the fans did come; the Avalon was sold out mostly to college students who struggled to get the best view of the heartthrob that they could.

It’s great to see Mayer where he stands today, awkward transition phase and all. Mayer’s sincerity and openness in singing about relationships, life and growing up really give his fans something to relate to in all areas of life. He recognizes that no one is immune to these growing pains, and he has no qualms about sharing his experiences through his music. “It’s [openness] is just my nature. I’m the person that you get sick of hearing talk most. I have no problem being an extrovert at all.” And in the end, John is just like any one of us—unsure of his future and struggling with living a complicated life. If you think that Mayer’s world is completely foreign to the Harvard experience, I would direct you to his Xbox obsession, the mindless video game that keeps him from going crazy on the road where the demands never end. Sound familiar?

There’s no doubt that Mayer has a long way to go from here. With only two albums, the acoustic Inside Wants Out and the more recent band album Room for Squares, Mayer doesn’t have a large repertoire from which to draw for his performances. A die-hard Mayer fan told me that she could only think of two songs that Mayer hadn’t played during the show, admitting that she is eager for something new.

But at only 24, Mayer has a lot of mileage in his future, both in songwriting and touring. And while he admits that the current tour will temporarily postpone the release of a new album, Mayer points out, “the better your record does, the slower it will be until the next one comes out. I’m still conceptualizing it right now.”

We can only hope that Mayer can make the transition through his newfound fame while continuing to write with the sincerity and innocence that he displays on Room for Squares.