While the age of the truly talented, charismatic and genuine soul music vocalist is sadly long gone, a few performers out there are more than worthy of claiming the title of bona fide heir to the throne of R&B royalty. The clear-cut leader of the crop of modern soul singers is most definitely Maxwell. The Brooklyn, NY native has consistently raised the bar and has proudly led the neo-soul movement since his brilliant debut album, Maxell's Urban Hang Suite was released in 1996. And since then, on the strength of his good looks and his seductive brand of sexy soul stylings, he's led a dedicated, mostly female fan base through an impressive career filled with fine records and memorable live performances.
Friday's night's Clearwater stop at Ruth Eckerd Hall on his current summer tour, dubbed the Black Summer's Night- Part II tour (named after his last album), was just that; memorable. The tall, slender, debonair Maxwell (born Gerald Maxwell Rivera of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent) gave a nearly sold-out house an evening of entertainment that they probably won't soon forget.
Emerging from a pitch-black stage while a modern-sounding remixed version of the 1971 Bill Withers classic "Ain't No Sunshine" pumped through speakers, Maxwell appeared looking dapper as ever dressed in a blinding white suit and shades. As his intro music suggested, Maxwell is a careful architect of song who combines the timelessness of classic soul with his own contemporary spin and, in the process, churns out his own brand of Maxwell music. And for the next 90 minutes, that's exactly what he treated the well-dressed, female-dominated audience to.
Fronting a stellar seven-piece band that included two keyboard players, a sax player and a female backup singer (musicians to whom he referred as "the greatest band in the world" on several occasions througout the evening), Maxwell got things off to a rousing start with his opening number, "Sumthin' Sumthin''' — one of the many standout cuts from his first album. His model good looks, his oozing sex appeal and his transcendent falsetto vocal abilities all in full effect, an anxious crowd had no choice but rise to its feet and sing along while dancing to the music.
A somewhat shaky and uneven sound mix unfortunately overshadowed some of the night's performances. Sounding sometimes muffled or distorted, instruments were either too loud in the mix or not audible at all. These issues were ironed out as the night progressed, and the star of the evening never lost his cool or his focus throughout the show.
Eventually removing his sunglasses and his sharp white jacket, Maxwell treated a loud, appreciative crowd to a healthy mix of upbeat numbers and heartfelt ballads (his true forte). His dynamic interpretation of Kate Bush's 1989 gut-wrenching "This Woman's Work" began with a piped-in verse from Ms. Bush herself before Maxwell grabbed his mic and delivered that distinctive falsetto weapon he yields, transforming the song into something his very own.
Another occurrence of a "guest" vocalist happened when Maxwell introduced soul chanteuse Alicia Keys. As expected, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause almost expecting Ms. Keys to actually appear. Instead, she appeared via video on a massive screen at the rear of the stage. The pair's 2012 duet "Fire We Make" consisted of a sultry performance from a scantily clad Keys while Maxwell sang to the screen behind him. A bit hokey for sure, but the crowd didn't mind; the sound of audience members singing along in unison almost drowned out the vocals of the two featured singers.
As Maxwell danced, strutted across the stage, shook, posed and postured, the admiration from the ladies in attendance continued rising. Shrieks, squeals and screams could be heard throughout the night as Maxwell charmed and dazzled all night. Eventually working his way to the lip of the stage to hand out hugs, handshakes and kisses to many swooning females, Maxwell did nothing but up his cred — and his sex appeal — by generously and humbly dispersing his affection to so many appreciative ladies in the front row.
But he didn't forget about the guys who might have been dragged to the show by their fanatical dates. "I know there are lots of guys who don't want to be here," he almost apologetically spoke, "but, guys, you'll get the best consolation prize of all ... after the show, you'll have the best lovemaking ever ... and then you can watch sports!", referring to the excitement level of the ladies, and the widely recognized notion that Maxwell albums are usually referred to, in cleaner terms, as "baby-making music." On a similar note, Maxwell jokingly mentioned that he was doing his best to keep this a "PG-13" show as he addressed a teenage girl who sat in the front row among the many other excited female fans.
After a couple of encores that highlighted two of his signature songs, the danceable Marvin Gaye-like "Ascencion (Don't Ever Wonder)" and the uplifting balled "Pretty Wings," Maxwell and his band all took center stage and each member personally thanked the crowd for attending the show and for being such a loud, appreciative audience. "It's because of you that I have my life and I thank you," Maxwell announced when the microphone came back to him. He was met with roaring applause, as he had been for every note he hit and every dance move he unleashed throughout the night.
While fans often complain that Maxwell isn't as prolific with album releases as they'd like him to be (a total of five albums throughout an eighteen-year career as a recording artist), it's likely that he's devoted more of his time honing his craft as a full-fledged dynamic entertainer. And, as many who were completely taken with his sheer showmanship and his aura on Friday night would agree, he's certainly mastered that.