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Review: Singer-songwriter Mayer gently ponders life's big questions

Peter Mayer was in his element Saturday evening at Sacred Heart Music Center. Framed by flickering candles, stained glass and stately pillars, the former theology student and music director at St. Gregory's Church in St. Paul created music that s...

Peter Mayer was in his element Saturday evening at Sacred Heart Music Center. Framed by flickering candles, stained glass and stately pillars, the former theology student and music director at St. Gregory's Church in St. Paul created music that showed us our interconnectedness.

This is no ordinary singer-songwriter. Mayer long ago challenged himself to avoid the commonplace topics of love and lust that most songwriters never get beyond. He peers into the philosophical dimensions of life. His music gently ponders the "big questions" and the many mysteries of life itself.

There is a wonderful childlike (not childish) quality to Mayer's best material. "God Is River" is an almost-perfect combination of writing, orchestral guitar and Mayer's smooth tenor voice with just a touch of rasp. It shares the idea that God, metaphorically, isn't a rock as some believe but a river that is constantly shifting and turning: "God is a river, not just a stone; he's a wild raging rapids and a slow meandering flow.... God is a river, swimmer, so just let go."

"Blue Boat Home" has been a staple of Mayer concerts. Saturday evening's version showed subtle maturity, as if the lyrics have achieved new meaning to the author, "...drifting here with my ship's companions, all we kindred pilgrim souls, making our way by the light of the heavens in our blue boat home." While much of the world seems intent on erecting barriers and fences, Mayer gently reminds us of bridging and uniting. His powerful message is wrapped in a glorious melodic coat and delivered quietly and sincerely.

Having picked up the guitar at age 15, Mayer started playing covers in bars. He has produced eight albums since "Uncrowded Sky" in 1993. He suffered through a torturous period a couple years back where tendonitis made playing guitar excruciating. His fan base has grown organically by word of mouth and Saturday night's capacity crowd gave him a list of requests so long that time didn't allow him to get to them all.

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The newest release, "Novelties," is a collection of tunes that Mayer has used over the years to "lighten" the mood during concerts. We learned a bit about his family through "Jama Day" dedicated to his wife, Beth (who likes to stay in her pajamas all day on vacation); his father's predilection for sweets in "Dorothy's Pie"; his own sartorial indecisiveness in "Don't Be A Hatless Man"; and his take on outsourcing and consumerism in "Made In China."

But make no mistake that Mayer's best compositions are those that flirt with the unknown and combine his meticulous ear for lyric and melody in a way that will simply stop you in your tracks. "Holy Now" is a gorgeous creation and highlights one man's awe and wonderment that we are actually here on this planet breathing and communicating "... so the challenging thing becomes not to look for miracles, but finding where there isn't one."

Mayer's encore of his genial conversation with Lake Superior, "Gitchi Gummi," was the perfect closing number and sent listeners off into the February night thinking about how lucky we are to live next to the big lake.

Mayer's music is like an elegant piece of old architecture: exquisite lines, well-crafted and sturdy, balanced and functional. It seeks to unite rather than divide. It looks at what we all have in common rather than what separates us.

Mayer told the crowd of 300 that he was grateful to be able to come and share his music with us. And, most assuredly, we were grateful that he would visit to help us all feel a bit more connected to each other and to the planet.

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