John Mayer

With only a mic stand, rug and guitar, John Mayer’s performance at Baltimore’s Modell Performing Arts Center on Oct. 7 proved that musical talent and stage presence alone are enough to keep audiences enthralled — no holograms or backup dancers required. Billed as “An Acoustic Evening With John Mayer,” the show was this year’s installment of Maryland-based PRS Guitars’ annual “One Night, One Show, One Cause” to benefit the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

The Modell Performing Arts Center, formerly known as the Lyric Opera House and built in 1894, provided a stunning setting for the benefit show, with its ornate moldings and impressive ceilings. The space features excellent acoustics and added grandeur to the simple stage setup, while still being a small enough venue to create an intimate feel.

The opener, Matt Scannell, is the frontman of the band Vertical Horizon, which was formed at Georgetown University when he and a friend were students. This evening, however, he was alone with only an acoustic guitar. With a voice reminiscent of James Taylor, Scannell played various Vertical Horizon songs, including one from the group’s album “The Lost Mile,” released earlier this year. He ended his set with the band’s most famous hit, “Everything You Want,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2000.

Soon after Scannell finished, Mayer took the stage to roars from the crowd and immediately began with the up-tempo 2012 song “Queen of California.” Even though there were no sets or other performers on stage, behind him dramatic blue spotlights cast up from the ground and beamed out into the theater. These light displays elevated the visual impact of the show without distracting from the music.

Unsurprisingly, Mayer’s expert guitar playing was on full display, and he switched acoustic guitars frequently. The richness, precision and creativity of his playing filled the theater and never felt underwhelming. Additionally, on some songs such as “In the Blood,” he played both harmonica and the guitar, even soloing on the smaller instrument.

After crowd favorite “Who Says” came Mayer’s version of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” It began with a unique guitar intro, with improvisation sprinkled throughout the song that made it feel dynamic and fresh, while highlighting Mayer’s mastery of the guitar. “Free Fallin’” also showcased his recognizable falsetto, which still shines despite his multiple vocal cord surgeries. Although Mayer’s set list spanned musical eras without sticking to chronological order, his acoustic guitar served as the unifying force.

John Mayer

Between songs, Mayer frequently reflected upon himself and his career, and at times it felt like he was performing stand-up comedy. His jokes generally drew laughs from the crowd, including one about the unwelcome memories that come with his old Amazon ship-to addresses. “I wanted a USB charger,” Mayer said. “I did not need a complete rundown of the past addresses of love lost.”

The mood of the audience shifted, however, when Mayer launched into a long-winded, five-minute speech after his performance of “Daughters.” He told the crowd that he “thought about that song in context with what’s going on in the world right now” and wanted “to tell you a secret that nobody in this room is ready for.”

Mayer then framed the social pressures men face to be capable of seducing any and all women as “sexual trauma” that “every man has in his upbringing.” He concluded that “we won’t have the life we all deserve” until the “alpha male contract” is eliminated.

While it initially seemed that his intermission was over, after finishing the 2006 ballad “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” Mayer paused and said, to mixed audible reactions from the crowd, “Might have been a good point that this was not the place to say that. So I apologize to you if I put you off.”

Re-focusing on the event at hand, he commended the work of the Johns Hopkins hospital. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and the timing works out now, so thank you very much,” he said before launching into “Neon,” which featured the most impressive guitar playing of the night.

Before playing his new song “New Light,” which already has over 100 million streams on Spotify, he said, “It’s nice to have a big song after about 10 years.” The stripped-down version was the opposite of the production-heavy studio version, and the audience got to see Mayer figure out how to play it acoustically.

“I had no idea that the response would be like this. Thank you,” Mayer said before beginning the spirited penultimate song, “Waiting On the World to Change.” Pulling out the harmonica one last time, he sang the swan song of the night, 2012 release “Born and Raised.” The introspective number felt like an appropriate conclusion for a stripped-down show that featured Mayer as both a gifted musician and unfiltered human in equal parts.

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