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POP MUSIC REVIEW

It's hard to dislike him

John Mayer delivers a sexy, bluesy and crowd-pleasing performance of old and new songs in Irvine.

September 29, 2006|Rich Kane | Special to The Times

Seems like everyone loves John Mayer -- singers, songwriters, rappers, guitarists, jam-band hippies, comedians and certainly the hordes of female fans who showed up Wednesday at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine to scream at his every leg twitch or brow furrow. (The men in the crowd? Not so much.)

So beloved is the Connecticut-bred Mayer that you come to one of his shows almost looking for reasons to hate him (other than "Daughters," his squishy mom-rock hit that weirdly managed to win the Grammy for song of the year in 2005).

The problem is that Mayer's actually pretty good -- frequently great, even, whether he's indulging his fetish for Hendrix/Stevie Ray guitar riffs, showing off his impossibly high falsetto or crooning his topical new song "Waiting on the World to Change" with the sincerity of an old seen-it-all bluesman. (Mayer has the soul Dave Matthews only wishes he had.) Even Mayer's cliched bid for some easy audience love -- "I feel I wanna play the greatest show ever for you people tonight!," which you know he utters at every tour stop -- seemed genuinely heartfelt.

That Mayer hasn't been willing to stick with the safe, mellow, dude-with-guitar approach that first netted him attention also gives him the kind of cred that Grammys just can't. The seven songs he played Wednesday from his just-out "Continuum" album -- among them, the slow-grind coitus of "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)," the barbed commentary of "Belief," the sexy, unhurried funk of "Vultures" and what may turn out to be the year's most devastating breakup song, "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room" -- were full of political and emotional bravado, delivered loudly enough to bruise eardrums. When his set was finished, he felt like a close drinking buddy, one you could share bad-relationship horror stories with.

Playing it somewhat cautiously was co-headliner Sheryl Crow, who found herself in the rather odd position of serving as the de facto opening act for Mayer, 15 years her junior. Crow hasn't had the best 12 months, what with a relatively lackluster album, "Wildflower," a very public breakup with Lance Armstrong and breast cancer surgery. She certainly can't be written off, though, and this greatest-hits set was a perfect way to remind the crowd what she's capable of, as she slid neatly from one radio behemoth into another. Her catalog has grown so solid that she was able to ignore "Leaving Las Vegas" and "All I Wanna Do," two of her biggest records, and nobody seemed to notice.

Yet Crow wasn't totally predictable, either, employing a string quartet during a good portion of her set and even getting bluntly political -- "Why do we go into some countries and others we don't?" she asked the crowd at one point, referring to the Darfur region of Sudan.

During another number, a series of meant-to-inspire quotes from assorted world leaders flashed across the video screen. Coming from an artist who's never exactly been known to make these kinds of grand pronouncements, it felt a tad out of place. The audience just seemed to want to hear something bubbly, like "Soak Up the Sun." But Considering the year she's had, maybe Crow has shed any inhibitions about what others say or write about her, arriving at a place of independence that makes the prospect of her next album much more intriguing.

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