Music Reviews

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Madison Square Garden, New York
Wednesday, Feb. 28

When your stage is spare -- just you and your seven-man band -- your venue is a sold-out Madison Square Garden and your song catalog cries out for warm intimacy, well, you'd better know how to own the place.

Fortunately, Grammy winner John Mayer knew how to shoulder the load for Wednesday's final performance of his Continuum Winter Tour, sponsored by mtvU. ("Final" being relative; he hits the road again in April.) Clad in T-shirt and jeans, Mayer not only proved that he can command the room, but he tossed in some intriguing surprises in his 95-minute set.

Strolling around with a loose-limbed dancer's grace, Mayer pulled on and thwapped away joyously on any one of his many guitars, yanking out moments of clear -- if sometimes clearly orchestrated -- beauty on smoky tunes like "Good Love Is on the Way," punctuating the cool with an occasional scat or extended riff.

Yet it felt like there were two Mayers at war. There's the MTV Mayer, trying to elude his heartthrob status leftover from 2003's "Daughters" by dropping it from the set while still chatting up the crowd with easy behind-the-songs rapport. This one encourages audience participation on hits like the acoustic "Your Body Is a Wonderland," performed sans band on a midstadium platform.

And then there's the Mayer constrained by the venue and the teen screams -- if a person can be constrained by too much space, too much love. This one whips out skilled chops to blast through grittier, bluesier material like "I Don't Need No Doctor" from his John Mayer Trio, a song that cracks open the prefab moments to send an electric jolt through the crowd. And this one seemed enrapped in his guitar duel with fellow axman (and former Pretender) Robbie McIntosh on "I'm Gonna Find Another You."

And in a way, there's a third Mayer, one who combined the best of both for the night-ender, a blistering, extended jaunt through "Gravity" that made the room feel like a small, smoky club. The addition of surprise guest Alicia Keys, who gathered the audience in her fist with just a few lines, made perfect the synergy of Mayer's commercial tendencies and too-brief heartfelt moments.

Ultimately, Mayer remains the bluesman-rocker you can bring home to Mom and Dad. That's good for the video channels, and probably good for the bottom line. But by the time the lights came up after a mere 15 songs, it was hard not to wish that the rest of the set had been as balls-out as Mayer proved he can be at his best.

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