With John Mayer’s sixth studio album Paradise Valley coming out on August 20, it’s time to spotlight some of his best unknown songs. Contrary to the media’s portrayal of the singer-songwriter, Mayer’s best songs are generally not the ones getting constant radio play. Instead most Mayer fans, guitar aficionados, and concert-goers know that the musician’s gems are from his live performances and rarely played tracks. The following lists seven of Mayer’s best overlooked work.
During the 2009 memorial honoring Michael Jackson’s passing, John Mayer’s cover of Jackson’s “Human Nature” was arguably one of the best moments of the special event. With his performance, Mayer was able to do two things simultaneously: continuously acknowledge the loss of Jackson while showcasing his own guitar playing prowess. Mayer subtly honored the singer’s memory and absence by not singing the song’s lyrics–letting the listener hear the classic track without Jackson’s signature vocals–and played to his greatest (and often overlooked) strength of being an expert guitarist. The way Mayer is able to make his electric guitar sing so smoothly, all on its own in place of Jackson’s voice is unbelievable, and is only topped off by his own unmatchable, climaxing guitar solo. The only downsides are the audience’s out-of-beat clapping that occurs at the beginning of the clip and the background singers that try to replace Jackson’s vocals mid-way through.
An extra song meant to be released on Mayer’s Continuum album (and was available with its pre-order on iTunes) but was ultimately left out, “Can’t Take that Plane” is a rollicking, upbeat blues track. Although the song is in keeping with Mayer’s blues phase that would culminate in Continuum, it’s not surprising that it was withheld from the full release, since its overly upbeat and strong rhythm clashes against the more pensive tones contained in the album’s other songs.
5. “Break Away”
Before he was even close to approaching his current mega rockstar status and was still performing around the Atlanta area, one of his best songs was “Break Away,” an upbeat pop rhythm. For the few who know of the song, the most common and accessible version is the one performed in 1999 at Eddie’s Attic, a music club in Decatur, Georgia (which is also where other notable acts had their start, such as the Indigo Girls and Shawn Mullins).
It’s fun to see how a song evolves and progresses as it is being written and smoothed out by its musician, and in rare cases its pre-released version sounds just as cool. The “Simmering” medley is an example of such a case. During one of Mayer’s live performances (before Continuum was ever released), he decided to play one of his in-progress songs that would later become the Grammy-nominated “Belief.” At first, it’s jarring to hear Mayer sing the different lyrics, “Is there any way to know when it’s over / When will you show her when you’ll be done / Is there any day that slowly rolls over / And that you will know when the last war was,” alongside the bluesy guitar and drum melodies associated with “Belief,” but the pre-released lyrics are equally fitting for the song. The fact that Mayer already had outstanding lyrics (most of which were changed in the final version) further emphasizes how under-valued Mayer’s lyric-writing abilities are. The rare find is also one of the most compelling reasons to see the musician perform at a live concert in his prime: Mayer improvs both lyrics and guitar riffs like no other. For his live performances, Mayer always seems to add-on new lyrics and fingers-out epic guitar solos, ensuring concert-goers get a totally unique experience that doesn’t stray from the original song. The six-minute live medley of “Simmering” adds another intense and addictive take on the moral- and war-themed hit “Belief.”
Another rare find, generally only available as a live version (which isn’t such a bad thing, considering Mayer is ten times better live than just a plain recorded track). Performed in 2004 and shown on PBS, “Hummingbird” is fueled by Mayer’s acoustic guitar strumming and pensive lyrics that crescendo into melancholy whistling. “Hummingbird” is a simple and hauntingly beautiful song.
Another song that Mayer rarely plays is “In Your Atmosphere” (also known as the “L.A. Song”), a sad ballad about a love gone awry and the desire to avoid Los Angeles, where he sings, “I don’t think I’m gonna go to L.A. anymore / I don’t think I’m gonna go to L.A. anymore / I don’t know what it’s like to land and not race through your door / I don’t think I’m gonna go to L.A. anymore.” The version with the best quality of the song is available in Mayer’s CD/DVD Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live in Los Angeles. In his live performance at the Nokia Theater, the ballad is powered by an acoustic guitar and his deft vocals which easily switch from low registers to scatting falsettos. The result is a lovely piece on heartbreak, loneliness, and avoidance.
On Mayer’s DVD Any Given Thursday, released in 2003, is the searing guitar epic “Covered in Rain,” a song which lasts for almost ten minutes. In the DVD’s documentary the track is said to be the second part to Mayer’s song “City Love.” “Covered in Rain” is one of the most well-crafted songs both lyrically and instrumentally by Mayer–or any artist for the past two decades. The dark and moody song showcases the experimentation with blues that would later work its way into Continuum. The guitar virtuoso that Mayer displays in “Covered in Rain” will probably become a standard in the coming years as the song gains more attention.
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