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Working up a blues streak

November 20, 2005|Steve Appleford

John Mayer Trio

"Try" (Columbia/Aware)

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THE blues are meant to be toyed with. In the right hands, they can be a source of inspiration, the root to an artist's discovery of a unique sound and vision. Or they can be a dead-end. For John Mayer, the blues are a welcome escape, a side trip from his career as easy-listening pop star and wise-guy troubadour. Turns out he just wants to be Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"You all ready to get down?" he asks early on this live album (due Tuesday), leading his new blues trio -- Mayer, bassist Pino Palladino and the accomplished Steve Jordan on drums. Mayer isn't doing anything incredibly original here. Not yet, but the results are still far more genuine than that '90s wave of flash teenage guitarists that was all technique and no tears.

Mayer always had some real chops within his jazzy, acoustic tunes, and he's all fire and pain on the old-school "Out of My Mind," which channels the sound and vocals of the late Vaughan and his band Double Trouble. It's a natural if unlikely fit. "Gravity" finds a sweet spot of feeling and grace, and even the funky but mundane "Vultures" erupts at the end with a slippery, agonized solo.

It's understandable that Mayer might want to feed off the energy and sweat of a live gig for the trio's debut, with devoted fans cheering his every wink and nod. But the music suffers from a muffled, mediocre recording that too often sounds as if it were captured from a distance, not up close, and maybe only hints at where Mayer might be headed.

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