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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Your Psyche is a Public Wonderland: John Mayer at Verizon Center

Chris Klimek

“There’s something about the authoritative wrong note that I’ve always really liked,” opined John Mayer at the Verizon Center Saturday night.

You think? Ever since his racy, racially inflammatory musings in a Playboy interview* hit the web, Mayer — the 32-year-old, six-foot-plus, sensitive balladeer and guitar lothario who once took home a Grammy for a song called “Your Body Is a Wonderland” — has been in a defensive crouch. For his 3.1 million Twitter followers, the rest has been (mostly) silence since 2:26 p.m. on Feb. 10, when he fretted, “They don’t make rehab centers for being an a-hole.”

That night, he nearly broke down on stage in Nashville, fumbling through two minutes, 50 seconds of awkward, apparently heartfelt apology for saying — well, he said plenty. Let it suffice that the interview begged the question of why megaselling albums like 2006’s Continuum and last year’s Battle Studies are such stubbornly milquetoast insipid affairs when their singularly self-aware author seems to have at least a boxed set’s worth of early-Prince freakitude inside him.

On the evidence how the audience received his generous two-hour set Saturday, interview hits like “My Dick Is Sort of Like a White Supremacist” have not depressed his stock with teenage white girls or their moms. Even so, it was apparent from the jump — “Heartbreak Warfare,” a shimmery ballad conflating global calamities and girl trouble, as has become Mayer’s songwriting SOP — that Jennifer Aniston’s ex would be spending the evening on his very best behavior. He came to play. Not so much to talk.

Appropriately a propulsive, fuzzed-out cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” came second, slathering the house in splahses of 70s sexual guitar napalm. He may ride those drippy ballads all the way to the bank, but no one denies his virtuosity with his instrument. (The guitar, we should point out.) Those velvety ax ministrations went over big, but not nearly as big as the primal wails that erupted a moment later when Mayer doffed his jacket, the sight of his lanky, tattooed, Krav Maga-striking arms sending estrogen production into overdrive.

Musically, the man most responsible for bringing sexyback was drummer Steve Jordan, whose flexy but merciless groove kept the show anchored against the star’s predilection for drift. Jordan’s mid-show solo camel-walked into a passage of James Brown’s “Soul Power” before morphing, anticlimactically, into Mayer’s conspicuously Curtis Mayfield-like hit, “Waiting on the World to Change.”

Earlier, Mayer had dismissed the band to play “a very shaky acoustic set” on the orders of “some crazy muse.” Before wrapping up with a tentative take of that “Wonderland” song, it had found room for a chestnut from his 1999 debut that he delivered with reedy conviction. Its title? “My Stupid Mouth.”

When he finally did himself get a word in, Mayer kept things polite and G-rated: “It’s not every day of the week you get yourself a Saturday, so let’s push it!” He thanked his fans section by section for purchasing “a ticket out of a really bad day, a really bad week, a really bad month” and declared he performs purely for love, since he doesn’t need any more money.

Joking about investing his fortune into the development of a “heli-boat,” he kept his guitar face slapped on tight, as if working hard to keep his fantastical vessel in safe rhetorical waters/airspace. That he’s a seasoned, crowd-pleasing pro doesn’t change the fact that a Mayer watching his mouth is a lot less interesting than one who isn’t. But spend a little time with either of them, and even crisis-management Mayer becomes at least as hard to dislike as he is to champion with gusto.

Oh, well. We’ll always have Twitter. Won’t we, John?

A version of this review appears in the Paper of Record, and on Click Track, where you can see a bunch of Kyle's awesome photos of Mayer's guitar-puss.

*Though it was actually a concurrent Rolling Stone profile wherein he said he was seeking "the Joshua Tree of vaginas."