At Monday’s show to a full Moody Theater, Maxwell’s haircut and wardrobe screamed Sam Cooke and young Marvin Gaye: gray suit, white shirt, skinny tie, pointed-toe oxfords, and black aviators. With occasional hip thrusts and a sensual confidence, the New York crooner played to his status as one of R&B’s sexiest and most prominent figures in decades.
As accompanied by an eightpiece band, including two horns and a backup diva, the singer evoked the latter soul icon with a knee-melting falsetto also redolent of his choice of entrance music, Prince. Further echoes of Al Green coalesced with jazz and gospel flourishes in the live instrumentation and rolling rhythms.
Introduced by Champagne-lounge electronics, languid saxophone runs, and shuffled guitar riffs, cool groove “Urban Theme” opened into disco funk, “Dancewitme,” and the smooth “Everwanting: To Want You to Want,” all three cuts from the late Nineties via Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite and Embrya. In fact, the former debut LP celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Of course it’s no longer the late 20th century; Maxwell now clocks in at 43, and most of his loyal fans have kids and are no longer bumpin’ and grindin’ to his music in college dorm rooms. Most notably, he no longer sports his iconic Afro and sideburns. Visual crutch ditched, the 90-minute performance’s central focus stayed on the music, with an assist from slick visuals on the big screen behind him.
The Brooklyn troubadour whisked through his two-decades repertoire: slow-burners “Bad Habits” and “Love You” from 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, and the bedroom eyes of “Hostage” and “Lake by the Ocean” from this month’s sixth effort, blackSUMMMERS’night. A stirring rendition of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” from his 1997 MTV Unplugged performance nestled neatly halfway through the first hour.
The show took an unexpected political turn when he addressed the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the passing of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling before going into “Lifetime” while Civil Rights-era footage and historical images of Martin Luther King were projected large.
“Black lives do matter,” stressed an impassioned Maxwell. “They throw us in prison and it needs to stop. We must educate and uplift ourselves.”
Part sermon, an extended version of “Fortunate” found him doubling as a preacher and band director. Called out or waved at, the saxophonist and organist pushed emotive, free-form solos. Maxwell glided in and out of his honey-dripped vibrato for “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” and piercing falsetto in “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)”.
Following a performance like that, it’s hard to believe Maxwell once faced insecurities about being a black man who played soul from Brooklyn.
“Soul has no color,” announced Maxwell before launching into the bittersweet “Pretty Wings” as throngs of women rushed the stage to post selfies with him. 1996 may seem like a lifetime ago, but in 2016, Maxwell’s got nothing left to prove.
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