Post Gazette Pavillon - Burgettstown, PA - August 24, 2006

Saturday, August 26, 2006
By John Young

"John Mayer's got a fabulous-looking audience -- some hot chicks," Sheryl Crow joked with the Post-Gazette Pavilion crowd Thursday night.

"And who hasn't made out to John Mayer's music?" she continued. "I have."

While Crow's comments were likely in jest, they point to a credibility gap from which both she and Mayer have suffered at times. Sure, they're both fine pop tunesmiths and instrumentalists -- but haven't good fortune and their good looks played just as big a role in their ascent of the commercial music ladder?

Both artists performed sets that went a long way toward quieting such critical murmurs of discontent. Mayer played for 75 minutes and Crow for more than 90, including her encore, on the first date of a tour together that will last nearly two months.

If any doubts remain about Mayer's chops as a guitarist, consider this: His band included Robbie McIntosh, one-time axman for Paul McCartney, the Pretenders and Norah Jones. McIntosh took a single solo, on dobro no less, during "Daughters." Otherwise, he bowed to Mayer's lead guitar prowess while simply doing a bit of finger picking or chugging along on chords.

But guitar slingers exist everywhere. What sets Mayer apart is his ever-deepening songwriting ability. The songs he played from his forthcoming album, "Continuum," ranged from the grooving midtempo blues "I Don't Trust Myself (With Loving You)" to the upbeat love ballad "The Heart of Life" to the catchy power-pop tune and new single "Waiting on the World to Change."

The anthemic, organ-dominated "In Repair," which Mayer and his seven-piece band melodically riffed on for nearly 10 minutes, may be the best song he's yet composed. "I'm not together, but I'm getting there," went the refrain, on which Mayer is clearly selling himself short.

Crow's set featured a few missteps, mostly minor. It was hard to hear the string quartet she had onstage for most of the show, particularly when her backing quartet was really rocking. She also put four slow songs together about an hour into her show, sucking the life from a previously bounding set. Finally, the two covers in her encore were well-intended but poorly executed; Crow clearly struggled to read a lyric sheet singing Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" and fudged some of Robert Plant's wailing verses to "Rock and Roll."

For all that, though, Crow's set did a fine job of proving what a knack she has for melody and reminding fans of her staggering number of hits. Crow's voice soared on "Strong Enough" and "Everyday Is a Winding Road" but also expertly negotiated the emotional and lyrical turns of songs like "If It Makes You Happy" and "My Favorite Mistake."

Crow didn't simply play it safe, however. She took a risk in sharing her distaste for the Bush administration. Her sporting a "War Is Not the Answer" T-shirt during her encore was fairly benign. But during her song "Redemption Day," Crow had projected onscreen a number of ironic and poorly phrased quotes by the president. When the song ended with the date "January 21st, 2009" dominating the screens, a smattering of boos were heard among the cheers.

Crow also turned serious in introducing the title song of her last album "Wildflower." While she wrote the song before being diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, Crow said the piece has taken on new meaning, reminding her of "what you make of each day." Crow seemed similarly invested in her lyrics while belting out "Good Is Good," a big, aching ballad from "Wildflower."

So forget about the celebrities Crow has dated and how loudly teen girls scream at the sight of Mayer. What matters is the music, and both played it boldly and well.

(John Young is a freelance writer. )