If all you know of Jason Mraz are his gooey radio hits – particularly the overplayed “I’m Yours” and simplistic “I Won’t Give Up” – then it’s easy to dismiss him as this generation’s Leo Sayer.
But here’s what you’d be missing – Mraz possess an extraordinarily good voice, an instrument so pretty, it shocks you when he leans back from the mic to unleash a powerfully long-held note.
He’s also got a lot to say, not unlike, say, Paul Simon. And while many of Mraz’s lyrics tend to sound like rambling journal entries instead of something deeply philosophical (a la Simon), he’s nonetheless a crafty wordsmith, imbuing many of his songs with tongue-twister lyrics, while his ballads are delivered with unquestionable sincerity.
And here’s something else: Mraz, 35, is a veritable road horse, a guy who has done the coffeehouse circuit, the club gigs, the theater shows and now, for the first time, he’s headlining amphitheaters (yes, he did play Verizon Wireless in 2009, but it was part of a multi-act radio show, not his own show or tour).
He achieved his success the old-fashioned way (not unlike opener Christina Perri) and fashions his career like an old-fashioned hippie, treating fans with respect while quietly sharing his save-the-Earth missions (he mentioned in an interview last week several initiatives in place during this tour).
It’s a combination that has equaled solid radio success and, at Saturday night’s show at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood, a crowd of more than 8,000 fans who happily accepted Mraz’s sonic hugs for two hours.
A bigger tour requires a bigger production, and Mraz’s combination of a nine-piece band, including a horn trio and fabulous percussionist Mona Tavakoli – set up at the front of the stage where she belongs – and a sleek stage with artsy video screen panels and lighted towers, provided sufficient visual augmentation.
Throughout the set, his skills as an arranger (or, re-arranger) were showcased, as on “The Remedy,” given a funky glaze with interludes by the horn section and Tavakoli, and toward the end of the show, “I’m Yours,” which sounded fuller and richer and blended seamlessly with a detour into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.”
But in between he did an admirable job of “choosing songs that are in the flow…we hope tonight is a musical ceremony with no formalities,” he said early on.
Given Mraz’s perpetually casual vibe – on Saturday, he strode the stage, as usual, barefoot and in jeans, his unruly curls tucked under a fedora – the audience wasn’t shy about singing along to the sweet acoustic strummer “Be Honest” and the slightly twangy “The Woman I Love,’ both from his current album, “Love is a Four Letter Word.”
While Mraz spotlighted several of those new tunes, including the harder-edged “Frank D. Fixer,” a tribute to his grandfather, and the hidden track, “I’m Coming Over,” performed acoustic style with his band gathered ‘round as if at a massive campfire, he didn’t neglect the fan favorites.
“Lucky,” his 2010 hit with Colbie Caillat, oozed with romance and “Plane,” a track from 2005’s “Mr. A-Z” that Mraz resurrected for this tour, climbed to a pulsing explosion.
Although Mraz is an affable ringleader, there were times when his gentler songs got lost in the amphitheater surroundings. Faring best was the funk-soul “Butterfly,” a coyly sexual song that sounds like a ‘70s throwback on its own, but when paired with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” turned into a rousing showstopper fitting for the venue.
It’s understandable to peg Mraz as an over-earnest lite-rocker. But, you know, James Taylor made a pretty good career of it.
Opener Perri was a well-suited complement to Mraz, another authentic singer who ably teetered between Alanis-Morissette rock chick and piano-playing chanteuse.
On a white stage adorned with flowers and white pedestals, the likeable Perri exuded humbleness as she urged the crowed into a singalong of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and then appealed to their inner groove with “Mine,” a sort of pop tarantella.
But the biggest receptions were reserved for “A Thousand Years,” her pretty lullaby from “Twilight: Breaking Dawn,” and her ethereal breakthrough ballad, “Jar of Hearts,” a song discovered on a fluke that has deservedly set Perri on a path to stardom.
(Rolling Stone recently posted a gallery from Mraz’s current tour.)