Despite a growing hangover from the night before – Birthday drinks for my 29th, it had to be done! – I was in good spirits arriving at the 02 in London. This mammoth indoor stadium is in fact one of my least favourite gig venues. A big, soulless chasm, with odd acoustics. The venue is mostly seated, and sports none of the grunginess that is almost required of a good gig venue. Regardless, Jason Mraz doesn’t play the UK often, and I was keen to catch him live.
Two songs in and I had (mostly) forgotten about both my hangover and the acoustic eccentricities of the venue.
Jason felt and sounded at ease on the large stage. His multitude of musicians were equally at home and almost embarrassingly professional throughout. He has clearly worked up through the ranks of live performance and has none of the unsure air some artists struggle with when playing the larger venues. Live, his vocal had all the ease of his studio work, blending his chest voice into his head voice without a slip, and employing a vocal melisma that most artists would kill for.
His influences are clear without the nods he gave us that night, but fun was had here regardless. A half naked saxophonist meandered through the crowd cueing up, in some style, a cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”. Later he sojourned his big hit “I’m Yours” into a Bob Marley classic, with a nod and a wink to his Reggae fandom.
Such playfulness was evident throughout. His songs were spread across the funky and the soulful, the intimate and the bombastic. He has the catalogue and range to experiment, yet at times the balance of those songs left as we know them and those songs rearranged into something fun and different tipped a little too far into musical frippery. His songs are solid and work without the cream and icing, and at points I was feeling a little light headed from the sugar hit.
His new album is simply titled “Love”. Love (and sex of course) has long been major themes of his writing, and the all American earnestness of this simple theme didn’t seem to scare this British audience. For the most part.
One hour in, the spotlight falls to a couple in the middle of the audience, and we bear witness to a stadium marriage proposal, bookended with Jason waxing lyrical about love and devotion over some pretty acoustic suspensions. I squirmed with unease. Of course I would. I am dead inside/British/cynical (delete as deemed appropriate).
While for the most part his sincerity worked for him, on the rare only-average track the threads start to unravel. On a plodding MOR track written for his granddad the chorus chimes:
I wish I was a fixer, I would fix you up inside
Not a highpoint of his lyricism, and perhaps they only stood out because usually he hits so high.
The band supplied an organic funk and a tightness beyond that expected in a stadium sized venue. The lead guitarist was showy only where appropriate. He knew when to use the strat, and when to use the tele – always a good sign. One telecaster in particular, boasting a Gibson-style trem’ and stacked hums left this guitarist more than a little green with envy. The immaculate playing was just the kicker.
I could bemoan the 02’s prevalent half-second sound delay of every snare hit, or the very American “clicky” bass drum sound, but such niggles are just that. The sound was clear and the playing smooth. An unexpected highlight was the percussionist. So good in fact, that at places she stole the show with her rhythmic, animalistic approach to making a glorious racket upon her toyset. While adding pitch perfect harmonies into the mic, no less.
The lass then went on to steal the stand out moment of the show: Employing glockenspiel batters to play Jason’s acoustic guitar for him, fretboard-tapping style. My eyes widened at such a simple yet genius slice of showmanship.
The encore slipped for me. Choosing to push his new single, which is more Snow Patrol than Mraz, I personally wanted to be left funked hard. But I was in the minority. The crowd were singing and swaying; a stadium does love an anthemic chorus.
Proof, if any more was needed, that he knows exactly what he is doing.