Jason Mraz w/ Raining Jane at The Chicago Theatre, 11.07.14
There are only a few artists who I will follow unconditionally, no questions asked. Jason Mraz is one of them. Since the release of his debut album in 2002, Waiting for My Rocket to Come, I have been an unwavering fan. With solid roots in acoustic-infused pop, Mraz has penned and released 5 albums - the lastest, simply called Yes!, was released on July 15, 2014 [produced by Mike Mogis] and opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. As Mraz's first fully acoustic album, it was written (with the exception of the Boys II Men cover) and recorded with a brand new supporting band - a four-girl "eclectic rock-folk group" from L.A, called Raining Jane (Mai Bloomfield, cello/vocals; Beck Gebhardt, bass/sitar; Chaska Potter, guitar/vocals; Mona Tavakoli, percussion/vocals). The girls first collaborated with Mraz to co-write the song "A Beautiful Mess" (2008), and have been writing and playing together ever since.
Being a multi-platinum recording artist, Mraz has toured all over the world numerous times. But when he's not on the road, the easy-going guy calls San Diego home. He got his start by playing at local coffee houses circa 1999 (check out his live album from 2001, Live at Java Joe's) and eventually found some bandmates there, like percussionist Toca Rivera and bassist Ian Sheridan. The early sounds of Mraz emphasize the nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, bongos, freestyle rapping, and scatting. His sophomore album, Mr. A-Z (2005, produced by Steve Lillywhite) is a great mixture of pop songs that show off his vocal range ("Mr. Curiosity", "Bella Luna") and lyricism ("Plane", "Song For A Friend"). We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things (2008) includes his most notable hit, "I'm Yours", which Mraz had been singing at shows for years before it was officially recorded. The tune stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 76 weeks and helped the album garner numerous Grammy nominations and awards. Love Is A Four Letter Word (2012) continued along the path of pop-tastic, uplifting, happy songs like "Living In The Moment" and "93 Million Miles", with "I Won't Give Up" as the epitome of romantic songs. Yes, critics might say that of late, his songs come dangerously close to being "too sugary", but that's actually not an industry-created gimic - Jason is truly happy at this point in his life, and the songs that he writes are accurate depictions of his state of mind. Mraz writes about positivity and love because he wants to remind himself to stay true to those feelings. It's refreshing to know there is a singer-songwriter out there who doesn't have to write about sex and partying in order to get a hit, am I right?
One of the many reasons why I have so much respect for Mraz is his attitude towards fame and success. Despite the fact that he is a Grammy-award winning powerhouse and has sold over 7 million albums as of 2014, Mraz still acts like your everyday, local coffee-house artist who truly appreciates his fans. He puts on private backyard concerts for his fans who are all over the world, brings YouTubers onstage to perform with him, plays intimate shows at places like Schubas (yes, THE Schubas), and with no ego whatsoever, chooses to avoid the limelight.
Some other interesting things about Mraz :: He is hilarious. He is an investor in the vegan restaurant, Cafe Gratitude, in LA. He is an avid social activist and is extremely environmentally conscious. Among his many green-supporting habits (ahem, if you know what I mean), Jason has his own five-acre avocado farm (the avocados were sold to Chipotle!) and is a raw foodist. He loves doing yoga. In 2012, he went to Antarctica with Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project to learn about the effects of climate change. And he started the Jason Mraz Foundation in 2011 that supports various philanthropic causes, like promoting the arts, preserving the environment, and advancing equality.
Unlike most major recording artists, Mraz writes all of his own music - I have no doubt about that. The B-side of the CD Mr. A-Z is actually a DVD that shows the process of writing and recording the album. And if you search "#album5" on YouTube, you'll come across a series of short clips on the making of Yes! with the Raining Jane girls. And if he could get any more impressive, Mraz is an incredible guitarist (self-taught) and vocalist. If you've never seen him live, you're missing out. Because he sounds better live than on a recording, if that's even possible. There's absolutely no faking it - he could sing entirely acoustic and without a band, and anyone with ears would be mesmerized. I consider him the benchmark for other live performers, because he is the best that I've ever seen.
This guy can easily play sold-out shows at huge venues like MSG and the Hollywood Bowl (and he has), but on this tour, decided to play at smaller, more intimate spaces. For instance, Jason+Jane went on a Five Boroughs mini-tour (six shows total) in NYC in September, playing at performing arts centers around the city, ending at Radio City Music Hall (seats 6,000). In an interview for Guitarist Magazine (UK), Mraz admits that he has a "love of small venues" and that he wanted the new album to be heard that way. He asked his label to treat them as if they were a new band - "Put us in small venues. Let us earn our way into the big ones. If we start where I left off at the O2, then we're going to be doing a disservice to this album, to this music, to Raining Jane, to my spirit and also to the audience", says Mraz. While it's certainly worth it to see him perform live anywhere (trust me, I've seen him 4 times now), it is notably different when he plays for a crowd of 18,000 vs 4,000. He loves the fan interaction and just wanted to put on a real show for this album. So I was pretty stoked to see that he was playing two (sold-out) shows at the Chicago Theatre (about 4,000 seats) to close out the U.S. portion of the Yes! tour.
I had never been to the Chicago Theatre before - it really is a beautiful historic landmark. It is located downtown, in the Loop on State Street, and after it was built in 1921, served as a movie theater. Currently, it functions as a performing arts venue for plays, comedy shows, and concerts. It's a beautiful building inside and out, with huge murals and an impressive lobby. I also found it funny that they still serve popcorn too! My seat was in the front row of the Loge at the Chicago Theatre [the Loge is the front section of the first balcony in a theater]. So basically, I had a sweet seat.
Another thing that was cool, and unique to Jason Mraz as a musician, was that the audience had an incredible range. I sat next to an older couple, maybe in their 60s, but there I was, a 25-year old, and down the row a little ways was a family with a couple of teenagers. It just shows that he reaches a variety of people with music that is so pure and positive.
Jason actually came out to introduce Raining Jane first, who opened with three or four songs of their own. And then he came out to sing a set full of old staples and new favorites. To be completely honest, I had some reservations about this album - it is a bit more simplistic than his other albums, and some songs are a little too sugary. But after hearing it performed live, I came to appreciate the harmonized vocals, soft moments of vocals+guitar+cello, and the new sounds like slide guitar and sitar. I think most old-school Mraz fans miss the Toca+Jason combo, but Mona did a great job on her various percussion instruments and boxes to still deliver a soft, warm acoustic sound. The new album is very "Jason" on the surface, but also vibes on an entirely new sound.
Raining Jane did justice to a number of the oldies, like "Life Is Wonderful", "Lucky", "Make It Mine" and "Dynamo of Volition". Off of the new album, they played "Everywhere", "Hello You Beautiful Thing", "Long Drive", "Quiet", and "Back To The Earth" (paired with vibrant photos and funny anecdotes about his backyard garden). There were some fun covers thrown in there too, like Mr. Roger's "Neighborhood" theme song, Spandau Ballet's "True", and Eurythmic's "Sweet Dreams". Jason also played a few on his own, like "Frank D Fixer" and "Mr. Curiosity", during which he showed off his opera singing ability, to many of the audience members' surprise (comeon, that note at 3:23? amazing). All five played alongside a music video of "Bottom Of The Sea", showing footage of him and Mona on their Antarctica trip which was very cool.
There was a brief intermission, but then they were back to play a sitar-infused, spaced-out versions of "93 Million Miles", "Love Someone", and "Shine", accompanied by some amazing photos of outer space, the earth, the sun, and the moon on the screen behind them. Jason played a simple and organic acoustic version of his classic, "The Remedy", and then neatly segued into "3 Things". The five of them closed the amazing show by sharing the mic to sing "I'm Yours", an emotional, quiet version of "I Won't Give Up", and "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday".
The show was incredible, and I did not expect any less. I actually grew to like Yes! more as an album, and appreciate the diversity in sounds that Raining Jane brought to Mraz's fifth album. While doing some of the research for this review, I came across an interview by the LA Times where Jason admits that he is very seriously considering retirement at 40. I'm not sure what I will do (I can't even really think about it or else I'll get depressed), but for someone who has been almost constantly on tour, it's understandable that he would want to settle down and just live a normal life. So if you haven't seen Jason Mraz perform live yet, you better go soon.
Despite being one of the best singer-songwriters out there, I find it amazing that Mraz isn't quite a household name - plenty of people have no idea who he is, and if they do, it's oftentimes only because of "I'm Yours". Which is kind of a shame, because he has an incredible repertoire of diverse songs. There is deeper meaning behind his pop-facade that resonates with all ages. Much like his green diet, Mraz is an organic artist - he sticks to what he believes in, writes about what he knows, and continues to wow everyone who goes to a live performance. And best of all, his music just makes you feel good inside. Jason Mraz has been and always will be a huge influence on my own musicsoul and I'm thankful that such an honest, humble, and talented individual has continued to share his music with us.
Think: Bushwalla; James Morrison; DMB; Colbie Caillat; Jack Johnson
[PS. Still don't believe me about his unplugged brilliance? Check out this show from 2006. You're welcome.]