The justification for the wife dragging me and family down to the Redneck Riviera (see previous post) was the Labor Day John Mayer concert, held at the amphitheater in The Wharf, a development in Orange Beach, Alabama.  Orange Beach is the newer of the two tourist meccas on Alabama’s stretch of the emerald coast.  The other mecca, Gulf Shores, about fifteen miles west along the beach, is where we stayed.  Mayer had visited Birmingham in February and my son dearly wished then to go, but he was in a bad way at the time, teetering between gradual recovery from the bone marrow transplant and any sort of decline that would surely have meant his demise.  He was in the hospital with a catheter in his urethra, which would have made concert-going problematic, to say the least. 

We arrived at The Wharf, a shopping/dining community (with Condo’s and a Marina–presently in foreclosure– and, of course, the Amphitheater) completely contrived and cobbled together by developers, to find it crawling with tourists about  an hour before the show started.  The women were dressed as inelegantly sexy as the female form could possibly bear, sporting thigh-length skirts and sundresses atop everything from flip-flops to cowboy boots, with their breasts trussed so tightly in form-fitting cotton and spandex garments until it appeared they would have had difficulty palpitating later at the sight of musical boy wonder and paramour-to-the-stars Mayer when they finally got to see him.  (Note to the females:  Never look as if you worked hard to look good.  Dress as sluttily as you wish, but it will only attract the male eye if it appears that you came by it naturally.  Overwrought fashion statements never work.  But neither do bodices that appear ready to rip on their own.  What’s left for the man to do if the bodice rips itself open?)

After finally giving up on any chance of securing a decent, sit-down meal at one of the many over-crowded restaurants, we settled on fast-food fair from the Sugar-Shack, a Dairy Queen sort of place that served everything from ice cream cones to hamburgers.  I didn’t eat.  Three days of excruciating boredom at the beach was finally taking its toll.  I just wanted the night to be over.  The chicken fingers and hamburgers and fries were swell.  Or so the family told me.

After dinner, we finally sauntered over to the boardwalk leading to the amphitheater.  The boardwalk traverses a particularly nasty-looking swamp–what the Louisianan’s would call a “bayou” and give a proper name.   It was undoubtedly infested with alligators.  I wondered–did the alligators know that anytime a rock concert was held in the amphitheater, that by the end, there would be numerous humans incapable of standing upright, never mind walking?  Seems to me an enterprising alligator might pick up on the scents emitted by shit-faced concert goers and make a meal out of the occasional one.   If the attendee can’t even walk, how could they know an alligator is lurking nearby?   The tradition that attendees at a rock concert have free license to so engorge themselves on drugs and alcohol until they lose all control of their motor functions stretches back to the sixties, and from the looks of last night, is a meme that has yet to die.  My kids, ages fourteen and sixteen, got to see plenty of plastered people.  The tradition appears to be waning, however.  All night there and not once did I smell the pungent, sweet odor of burning marijuana.  Or maybe folks have moved on to other, less obvious and smelly substances.  Like Meth or Crack or Ecstasy or whatever the drug de jour is.  I don’t know.  It’s been a long time since I played with that crowd.  But it appeared there still was a crowd.

We found our seats only to realize a fate worse than flying seated next to a momma and her nursing baby–a young family with three kids of about kindergarten or younger ages had seats next to ours.  I was flabbergasted.  Had these daft fools of parents any idea what a rock concert was like?  I whispered to my kids that it bordered on a DHR violation (Department of Human Resources, specifically, the Child Abuse Section) to bring kids that age to a rock concert.  Their ears, not yet dulled by decades of concerts, plane takeoffs, jackhammers and jamming with their friends, would be split in two.  Of course, I was right.  The couple and their children fled by the third song.  There’s $70/ticket five times wasted.  Surely they could’ve found a babysitter for less than $210 (the cost of the kid’s three tickets) that night?  They probably could have found a babysitter to stay the night at their house, and rented a cheap condo for some post-concert, Mayer-induced loving, and still come out ahead of what they did with trying to bring the kids.  Parents these days are so stupid.  Kids aren’t just little grown-ups!  Teenagers are, and that’s why they’re so confoundingly difficult to deal with.  But children are children.  Let them be just that.

I didn’t really like the idea of taking my teenagers to a concert either, but it was my wife’s idea.  My parents wouldn’t have even thought to accompany me to my first rock concert–Kiss–in the mid-seventies.   Which was a good thing.  Otherwise, I might’n have had the freedom roam around in the part of the general admission area that me and my middle-school cohorts had colonized.   The mind’s eye chuckles at how they would blush today to know what went on at those concerts back in the seventies.

The warm-up band was Owl City.  They started their set about 7:30, just as I expected and had told my kids would happen, for a concert that was due to start at 7:00.  I don’t know why, but it has always pissed me off that rock musicians don’t seem to know how to tell time.  The first sound out of the massive speaker system came from a violinist and cellist seated right-center at the front of the stage.  The spotlight focused on them as they began to play what sounded like an ode to blackboard fingernails.  The screeching was horrible.   I plugged my ears with my fingers, and felt really sorry for the children next to me.  Once the strings were done with the excruciating intro, things only got worse.  Even I had forgotten how god-awful loud god-awful musicians always turn up the amps in order to drown out their playing.  It reminded me of an Aerosmith concert back in the late seventies.  The band had arrived so obviously stoned that they barely ever even got started playing and lasted only about thirty minutes.  No matter.  The amps were so loud, we couldn’t even tell which songs they were playing.  I told my kids that this was ridiculous, and I was going to the concourse to get a beer.  And so I did, and that’s where I stayed until their set was over.    The noise was thankfully much less painful to endure on the concourse, muffled as it was by the concrete pilings and such making up the infrastructure.   The kids hung in there with Mom.  But I’ve done enough concerts and am old enough until I don’t care to torture myself anymore just for the sake of saying I’d been there.  Besides, wasn’t the beach torture enough?

Owl  City didn’t  last long, and after about twenty minutes, Mayer finally showed up–at 8:30–right on time as I had reckoned it.  Before he did, it was time for another beer run and I was in the concourse when he started.  I figured out that I could hear the concert just as well from there, and see him on the big screen above the stage through the portal, so I texted the family that I was staying put.  The kids could use a little time away from me and my dour attitude for having been dragged along on this beach/concert trip.  I didn’ t know too many of Mayer’s songs until about two weeks or so before the concert, and my son had copied his Mayer iPod file onto a CD for me, to which I listened diligently while driving.   After listening to the CD, and to Mayer’s collection of what sounded in the studio like mellow relationship songs, I thought the night might be something like a Barry Manilow or Michael Bolton concert.   What doesn’t come through on the studio tracks is the raw, sensual energy of Mayer’s guitar.  The guy is a good, but not great, lyricist.  Nothing like a Kris Kristofferson or Paul Simon so far as lyrics go.  But he can play guitar.  It dawned on me listening to him at the concert that Mayer is not a singer/songwriter of the mold that writes music to go with his lyrics.  He writes lyrics to go with his music.  A good example is “Gravity” which has nothing of much heft lyrically.  At least not until his guitar starts playing, and then you can almost feel the gravity weighing you down with every chord.   The soulful visual energy as he riffs up and down the fretboard surely contributes to his nascent sex-symbol status.  He and the guitar (or his many guitars–he must have used a half-dozen through the course of the show) are soulmates.  It almost seems like he wrote songs like “Assassin” and “Half of my Heart” with his guitar in mind.

Listening to Mayer’s studio recordings, you might think he was a pop balladeer.  Listening to him in concert, you might guess a blues artist.  But he’s really a little of both, and thereby neither.  His lyrics are mostly lamentations at love gone or going bad (e.g. “Heartbreak Warfare”).  His guitar riffs are straight from the Delta.  But the Blues have a resignation that Mayer’s lyrics don’t convey.  As soulful and heart-broken Mayer’s lamentations are, there always seems a hint of optimism and reconciliation around the corner that you don’t get with straight Blues.  The Blues is a good man feeling bad, but resigned to his fate.  Mayer is a good man feeling bad, but pissed off and ready to take charge of his fate.  The fusion, that can really only be grasped live, is what made the concert for me.

Mayer presented a striking stage presence.  He wore a sleeveless t-shirt, no doubt to show off his extensively tattooed arms.  He’s got way more tattoos than any mensch ought, but hey, he’s a musician right?   He’s fairly tall and lean, not skinny, so he doesn’ t quite fit the hipster, skinny-musician profile.  He has brooding, dark eyes that are tightly and expressively closed when delivering the lines that matter, either through the mike or his guitar, and appear baleful and world weary when delivering his lamentations.  His voice was crisp, but scratchy enough to make it interesting.  It was easy to see what Jennifer and Jessica might have seen in him.  But he shouldn’t have dished on them in public like he did.  Even bad boys in rock and roll don’t get to kiss and tell.  That’s for their girlfriends to do, and film, if they so desire (Pam Anderson). 

I’m obviously not a Mayer expert.  Just a forty-something old guy (but probably about median-age for the concert goers) that’s hard to impress.  But Mayer impressed.  He’s neither the most talented lyricist I’ve seen, nor the most talented blues axeman I’ve seen, but together his talents synergize a style and music that is uniquely compelling.  The hour and half or so of the standards he played were well worth the price of admission.  Maybe not the price of staying at the beach for three days, but I’m pretty sure that’s one of those hard to quantify things that are “priceless”.