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Mayer's chops prove he's far from just a tabloid pretty-boy

The house was, surprisingly, only three-quarters full Saturday evening as John Mayer and his stellar band celebrated the music of his most recent effort, "Continuum," as well as choice nuggets from his previous efforts.

It didn't seem to matter, either to Mayer and his musicians, or to the enthusiastic crowd that did show up. For them, Mayer gave his all, and dug deep into the blues/r&b/-soul/pop hybrid that has so endeared him to so many.

Over the course of just about two hours, Mayer played most of "Continuum," and punctuated the songs with his simply stellar guitar playing.

Interestingly, following last week's Gusto cover story, in which I suggested that Mayer is one of several emerging inspired and inspiring electric guitarists, a flood of e-mails arrived suggesting Mayer was a poor player, a pretty-boy with an empty head, or some sort of bandwagon-rider who'd managed to bamboozle both the public and the critics.

This is interesting, but really, has more to do with public image, Jessica Simpson, and tabloid frenzy than it has to do with music. The self-appointed guardians of the electric guitar's integrity who wrote after the Gusto piece must be unfamiliar with Mayer in concert.

In this setting, he shines, channeling the spirit of some of the finest rock and blues guitarists of the past 40 years, including Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Flanked by second guitarist Robbie McIntosh -- whose resume includes stints with Paul McCartney and the Pretenders -- Mayer stole the crowd's heart with a minimum of fuss, letting his groove-centered, soulful rock speak for him. He's got incredible chops as both vocalist and singer, but uses them sparingly, to serve the song, in keeping with the ethic espoused by his influences, who never let flash get in the way of well-earned passion and honest investment.

An early highlight was "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)," a slow and sticky blues-soul mash-up orbiting around Mayer's envelope-filtered guitar figure, and featuring, at its coda, a beautiful, near-epic guitar solo from Mayer, as McIntosh comped chords subtly behind him.

"Belief" is a poetic piece of r&b with elements of Curtis Mayfield poking through, and Mayer's way with striking chord changes in ample abundance.

"Waiting on the World to Change" is Mayer's big hit from "Continuum," and he played with full investment, the crowd eating up its subtle Prince and Marvin Gaye-isms, Mayer's two-piece horn section adding funk and color, while drummer JJ Johnson shoveled coal like a demon in the engine room.

Anyone doubting Mayer's blues chops should hear him belt out "Gravity" in concert, its smart chord changes and slowing 6/8 time signature gorgeously underpinning what is surely some of the best soul singing coming from Mayer's generation.

Mayer is only getting started. He's clearly one to watch.

Kathleen Edwards' opening set was tepidly received, but she and her band played the singer's folk-rock hybrid with panache, particularly during a kickin' Dolly Parton cover. The arena was not too friendly to the subtleties in Edwards' music, but her set was strong.

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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>Concert Review

John Mayer

Saturday night in HSBC Arena

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