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Eric Harland

At 36, prolific drummer Eric Harland has appeared as a sideman on nearly 200 recordings, bridging the rhythmic gap between Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding, John Mayer, and Mariah Carey. He finally released Vipassana, his sophomore album as a leader. The eponymous style of meditation that lifts the veil of perception is apropos for an artist so attuned to the hidden pulse of all things, and he moves beyond category with Voyager, his band of genre-bending yogis he met along way. Guitarist Julian Lage, saxophonist Walter Smith III, and bassist Mark Kelley (of the Roots) make this Ayurvedic jazz hip-hop for the soul.

Tue., Sept. 2, 8 p.m., 2014

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John Mayer

John Mayer will not relax or settle, bouncing from hard rock to jazz to pop to blues on the backs of fluid guitar figures that are less lyrical or prodigal than understatedly emotive. He’s like a MOR Pied Piper, this guy, with the doofy lyrics, the sad eyes, the sometimes amusing facial hair, the wishy-washy Katy Perry romance. Laugh at him now, but he’ll be laughing at you long after you’re dead, when your great granddaughter’s slow-dancing to “Daughters” at her wedding.

Wed., Aug. 28, 6 p.m., 2013

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Pazz & Jop: Frank Ocean’s Sea Change

It’s early September, and scattered around a dimly lit stage on network television are vintage arcade games: Street Fighter, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man. Before these old mall relics stands a band made up of two guitarists (one of whom is John Mayer), a bass player, and a drummer. The foursome forms a U shape around a young man in his mid twenties, his back slightly hunched, sitting on a stool, sporting his signature red-and-white-striped bandana. He’s singing a heartbreaking song about nostalgia, love lost, and the difficulties of moving on. While he croons, his weight slightly shifts. He lifts his head gracefully. He closes his eyes tightly. He pours his deepest secrets out to millions of viewers, but he’s very much in his own world.

That man is Frank Ocean. That stage is Saturday Night Live. The song is “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” and this moment could arguably be the apex of the music culture in 2012.

No one is surprised Ocean’s Channel Orange sits atop our annual Pazz & Jop poll. The artist dominated most music discussions this past year. He is the great equalizer. Because whether you consider yourself a fan of rap, indie rock, pop, metal, or polka, you were thinkin’ about Ocean. More than a third of P&J voters placed Orange somewhere on their ballot. His songs “Thinkin'” and “Pyramids” both cracked the singles Top Ten.

Channel Orange is a revelation. And its genesis can be traced all the way back to Hurricane Katrina, the storm that destroyed Ocean’s recording studio in New Orleans. It forced his decision to move west to Los Angeles with only $1,000 in his bank account. There, his talent led to signing with Def Jam under his birth name, Christopher Breaux. Once there, he started writing songs for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Beyoncé. You know, no big deal for a guy barely out of his teens.

With success came money. And, “at 20 or 21,” he told GQ this past fall, “I had, I think, a couple hundred thousand dollars [from producing and songwriting], a nice car, a Beverly Hills apartment—and I was miserable.” Ocean met a rapper named Tyler, the Creator, joined his crew, Odd Future, and found some confidence. He released a free album called nostalgia, ULTRA in 2011 under the name Frank Ocean. The mixtape was critically acclaimed, and—wait a second—Def Jam had to sign him all over again. He outsmarted the business and became an inspiring story of artistic independence in the process. That same year, he went on to perform some of the only guest spots on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. Were the gods of rap knighting their prince? Even though you can’t and shouldn’t label Ocean a rapper, looking back, it sure as hell seems so.

Fast forward to July 2012. As the world waited on edge for Ocean’s debut major-label release, the songwriter surprised everyone and posted a note online: a story about his first love being with a man. In one swooping moment, Ocean had “come out,” for lack of a better term, and challenged the way the hip-hop/r&b community talks about its complicated relationship with sexuality. The letter was beautiful, endearing, brave, and inspiring. “By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant,” he wrote. “It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love. It would change my life.”

A few days later, Channel Orange would see release to much acclaim. The record, like the letter, is brilliant and subtle: a hodgepodge of emotions, made of short and long tracks stuck together like duct tape. Its sweeping, dynamic range of musicianship provides the ideal platform for Ocean’s voice, earnestly searching for answers and cures to help mend a broken heart.

Ultimately, of course, Ocean’s letter isn’t why it won Pazz & Jop. But it and Channel Orange come from the same mind, the same worldview. Ocean’s music argues that love—like heartbreak—knows no boundaries. What matters is the experience, not the labels we use to describe them. On “Bad Religion,” he sings, “It’s a bad religion to be in love with someone who could never love you.”

He’s right. Let’s leave it at that.

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Rhett Miller

Researching this brief, I found that some amateur last.fm impressionist tagged a Rhett Miller song as “a campfire and a tent and a flashlight and that river and a really really big bear but the bear is really really far away.” Strange as that sounds, it actually makes sense. Hooky and folky like Wilco and a young singer-songwriter like John Mayer, Rhett Miller delivers country-licked melodies that comfort you with their earnest intensity.

Thu., Jan. 5, 8 p.m., 2012

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The Lemonheads

In the ’90s, commonly shirtless rocker Evan Dando set the template for all druggy, actress-courting musicians who followed (yes, he can be blamed for Ryan Adams and John Mayer), but his sweetly solipsistic brand of alt-grunge was always welcome. Having penned the best songs about the girls you do drugs with (“My Drug Buddy”) and the girls you’ll never have (“Allison’s Starting To Happen”), Dando and his Lemonheads might be an exercise in nostalgia today, but damn if they don’t wear it well. With the Canon Logic.

Thu., April 28, 8:30 p.m., 2011

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David Gray

More than a decade after his hit “Babylon” laid the groundwork for sensitive-dude strummers like John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne, it’s hard to get too excited about David Gray, the English folk-rock mainstay whose sturdy if unremarkable catalog keeps growing nonetheless. (Foundling came out last summer.) Fortunately, Gray tends to up the intensity onstage, even when he goes acoustic, as he will tonight. With Lisa O’Neill.

Wed., Feb. 23, 8 p.m., 2011

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GLORY DAZE

Resident douchebag John Mayer, who just can’t stop himself from making that creepy O-face every time he, as he puts it, “feels” the music, might be a perfect candidate for a comedy show—and yet why kick a dead horse when its down? A far greater challenge is the fist-pumping, all-American wholesomeness of the Boss. And that’s exactly who four sketch groups aim to capture tonight in The Bruce Springsteen Show, described as a “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-shaking, booty-quaking, love-making” event. Presented by the Upset Triangle, this send-up of Springsteen’s true essence—signature white T-shirt, blue jeans, bandanna, and all—stars the wacky talents of Seth Herzog (Role Model), Leo Allen (Funny or Die, Human Giant), BoF, Dan St. Germain, and Rue Brutalia. So, who’s playing Steven Van Zandt?

Sat., May 8, 9:30 p.m., 2010

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INDIE CASTAWAYS

The Wonder Show of the World, Will Oldham’s new album under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy guise, falls into the inscrutable alt-country bard’s slow-and-low indie-folk tradition (as opposed to his boozed-up bar-band tradition, his Appalachian-creepazoid tradition, or his Music City old-timer tradition). Recorded primarily with well-traveled sessioner Shahzad Ismaily and Microphones/Mount Eerie dude Phil Elverum, Wonder Show is also the loveliest thing Oldham has released in some time; the album’s best cut, “The Sounds Are Always Begging,” could almost be an alternate-universe John Mayer ballad. (Sorry, indie purists!) Tonight, Oldham, Ismaily, and guitarist Emmett Kelly showcase the disc with an early gig at 8 and a late show at 10:15.

Thu., April 1, 8 & 10:15 p.m.; Fri., April 2, 8 p.m., 2010

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John Mayer Shuts Up and Sings

John Mayer, in person, is startlingly handsome, until he opens his mouth. Except this time, he is not announcing that his dick is a white supremacist, referring to ex-girlfriend Jessica Simpson as “sexual napalm,” vividly detailing his enthusiasm for pornography, or blithely discussing his “hood pass” with such ill-advised and charged language that he’s assured of never having a hood pass again, etc. No, at the moment, he is merely singing, which is vastly preferable, and yet there is the matter of his Intense Singing Face. To more emphatically convey the smoldering passion of a line like, say, “I don’t care if we don’t sleep at all tonight/Let’s just fix this whole thing now,” Mayer contorts his mouth into a profoundly unappealing zombie rictus that ages him roughly five decades, a stricken grimace stretched hard to one side of his face, like a grotesque Bill Hader impression of a sociopath or a crazed chimp or something, tossed off with 10 minutes left in a particularly lousy episode of Saturday Night Live.

This is a problem.

Though not as big a problem as that other problem, true. We are live at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, and our star attraction—lithe and dashing, affably erotic, a heavily favored medalist in the Olympic sport of toe-curling—is taking five to read a few signs enthusiastically proffered by preteen girls, lusty moms, and guitar-god gentlemen disciples alike. “A lot of people want to jam,” Mayer observes. (He actually pulled an 11-year-old dude with such a sign onstage in Philadelphia last week. Gave him a guitar and everything.) “A lot of people want my shirt.” (He doesn’t seem to have given anyone his shirt recently.) He jokes about insufficient font size, and squints: “I see something about virginity.” (Audience screams, sex-crazed hoots, etc., though the sign in question rather chastely read, “You’re taking my MSG virginity.”) But Mayer graciously suppresses any lewd reply that might’ve occurred to him: “That must refer to the old record store in Times Square. You’re looking at the clean me. This is the clean me now, people.”

Not a moment too soon. Shut Up and Sing would make an excellent title for a JM documentary, had the Dixie Chicks not already taken it. But this latest round of wayward press antics—detailing his relationship woes/onanistic preferences in the most simultaneously revolting and mesmerizing Rolling Stone cover story in decades, then dropping the N-bomb over lunch with Playboy—seems to have suitably traumatized him as well as us. Far less voluminous Tweeting, and no more interviews. Ever. At least for a while.

And while this is definitely good news (for him, for the country, for race relations), it is, undeniably, also a little sad, that we’re losing (at least momentarily) the ribald half of without question the strangest dichotomy in popular music, between the tuneful inoffensiveness of Mayer’s calculatedly bland blues-pop and the quite literally masturbatory wanton offensiveness of his public persona. If those two impulses ever switch places or, scarier still, somehow combine—if he ever writes and sweetly, innocuously sings lyrics as provocative and deranged as one of his typical interview bon mots (e.g., “Before I make coffee, I’ve seen more butt holes than a proctologist does in a week”)—then the carnage will be unprecedented, visceral, delightful.

The “clean me” is not without his charms, though. Thursday’s fete is a brisk 90-minute bacchanal of radio-friendly unit-shifting; the title track to his new record, Heartbreak Warfare, has a pleasant sort of low-impact anthemic U2-ness about it, though it’s followed by the record’s discordantly surly cover of “Crossroads,” wherein Mayer alternates his Intense Singing Face with an equally Intense Guitar Face. Ah, right: He’s a pretty OK guitar player, too, blasting through a monster solo (more House of Blues than actual blues, but hey) during the slow-burn climax of “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.”

He thus burns through most of the hits, which you know even if you think you don’t. (Again, most of them: We regret to inform you that your body is no longer a wonderland.) The very gentle antiwar jam “Waiting on the World to Change” compels all four teenage girls in front of me—who’d spent the entire set with their arms interlocked, screaming—to raise their cell phones silently in unison, which is as profound a compliment as you can bestow upon someone these days, I guess. The super-cheesy coffeehouse-folk eye-roller “Daughters” is mercifully confined to a solo medley that also includes “My Stupid Mouth,” which was apparently already a problem for him back in 2001.

Still, he’ll always be a better banterer than a rocker. “I’ve looked at all the Twitter replies—you all seem very concerned about your hair,” he notes, thanking us for braving the hellacious, theoretically perm-decimating snowstorm raging outside. “But your hair looks beautiful.” [Screams, etc.] Plus a Chat Roulette joke! Plus, other than the Clean Me thing, the only direct reference to his recent troubles, clearly intended to be tonight’s theme, moral, and pull quote: “I never in my entire life intended to come off like an asshole. Thank you for believing I’m not an asshole. I never once thought it’d be cool to be an asshole. But I guess there’s a lot of assholes who’d say the same thing.”

Streamline that a little, and it’d actually make a great chorus, someday, maybe. For now we’ll settle for Warfare‘s “Half of My Heart,” on record a tasteful little duet with Taylor Swift, who I imagine ain’t too keen on appearing with Mayer anywhere public anytime soon. This, too, is both understandable and a little sad. Our wayward hero is only using half of his heart these days, though it is, in his defense, the half that’s a lot less likely to get him killed.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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HIPPIE DUDE

Tonight, Citizen Cope starts his third night of five (!) nights across New York—two at Music Hall of Williamsburg, three at Bowery Ballroom—bringing his chilled-out boho strummer-funk to his exceptionally chilled-out fans. Spending a few years as the missing link between Beck and John Mayer, Cope is still managing to give the beach-going acoustic guitar troubadour its moody hip-hop makeover. The first single from his upcoming fourth LP, Rainwater, doesn’t rock the boat at all—chillaxed vibes, hard-pumping breakbeats, luxurious pseudo-hippie croon. Be prepared to hear this guy everywhere in 2010, but, then again, you already do: His Wikipedia entry has nearly 40 entries for his songs that are licensed to a commercial or a TV show—everywhere from Entourage to Scrubs to So You Think You Can Dance to car commercials. In other words, don’t wonder how this guy is selling out five nights even though none of your friends are going.

Fri., Feb. 12, 8 p.m., 2010