Maxwell gleefully announced from the stage of the Amalie Arena last Saturday night during his set. As headliner for a multi-act bill, the singer-songwriter-producer benefitted from playing to a crowd that had already been warmed up thanks to the short (but hit-filled) sets both Joe and Anthony Hamilton. Still, it was clear that the mostly female audience was there mainly for the night’s main attraction.
Handsome, stylish, and slick, Maxwell emerged from the rear of the massive stage amid dramatic blue lights and through a cloud of billowy fog. His six-piece band was already in their places when the debonair native Brooklyn, New York singer of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent made his way out to join his bandmates. Sporting a stunning black blazer half-encrusted with mirrored tiles, black slacks and sunglasses, the man who was at the center of the late-’90s neo-soul movement commanded all eyes on him.
Opening with “Sumthin’ Sumthin,” a standout track from his essential 1996 debut album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, instantly compelled the audience to rise to its feet to feel the grooves the star of the night and his band were starting to pump out. In fine vocal form, Maxwell’s sweet voice filled the arena where just under 10,000 people came through the turnstiles. The singer’s true vocal gift, his ability to reach a flawless falsetto range (which undoubtedly calls to mind the great, late master of that range, Prince) was displayed wonderfully when he performed “Lifetime,” one of the best tracks from his 2001 release, Now. In tribute to the Purple One, the singer incorporated a verse of Prince’s 1981 sexy ballad “Do Me Baby” into the performance which was met with plenty of elation. The balladry and the mesmerizing effect the singer was able to cast on concertgoers continued in grand fashion with the inclusion of “Fortunate,” another fine slow jam that gave the singer more opportunities to stretch his vocal prowess and show off his versatility.
As video screens on either side of the stage captured up close images of the singer and his band, the large, curved screen at the rear of the stage displayed snippets from many of Maxwell’s music videos which seemed a tad distracting but, nonetheless, didn’t detract his admirers from taking any focus off him. A mid-set wardrobe change revealed that the singer’s closet also features another mirrored jacket; this time, he emerged (in similar fashion to how he entered the stage at the onset of the performance) donning a white jacket which he’d soon remove.
Continually moving and active across the stage, Maxwell threw in some impressive dance moves and included some tried and true showman tactics like getting on his knees to belt and emote, waving at and flirting with women in the first few rows of the venue and giving geographical props to the loud audience ala “Tampa…let me hear you!” which is always a surefire hit. The singer truly hit his stride when he unleashed another selection from his Now album, “Get to Know Ya,” which is undeniably one of his strongest songs. Sadly, Maxwell got little opportunity to capitalize on the fever pitch he’d reached at that point of the setlist; his paltry, 65-minute set didn’t allow him to really flex his onstage personality or charisma due to its brevity.
Ending the night with “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” the smooth jazz/quiet storm smash from his first album, Maxwell clearly showed off his charm and his magnetism. Delivering a note-perfect rendition, he encouraged those in attendance to sing along on the song’s familiar chorus. In unison, the crowd responded in kind and pitched in and turned the song into a rich sing-along. Surprisingly, no encores followed, and, with that, the set came to an abrupt conclusion as house lights instantly came on suggesting that the concert was over. No doubt due to this being a multi-act bill, it was disappointing that Maxwell’s set was so brief.
But, on the brighter side, it was his opening acts who set the pace and got this night’s crowd geared and primed for the headliner. Joe, a fine vocalist himself who emerged in the early-‘90s was first up. His fantastic, 30-minute set was jam-packed with hits from his lengthy career and drew plenty of accolades and favorable responses from those who’d arrived early enough to catch his prompt arrival. The singer didn’t waste a minute of his allotted time and took the opportunity to show off his still-strong vocals on some of his best-known ballads like “I Wanna Know” and “Don’t Wanna Be a Player” which some in the audience stood and sang along to. Smartly dressed in dark-colored satiny slacks and shirt, Joe worked up quite a sweat fronting his own five-piece band; enough so that he took a couple of opportunities to wipe the perspiration from his face on a towel and toss it to adoring females in the audience.
Equally entertaining was Anthony Hamilton, another major contributor to the neo-soul genre that the night’s headliner helped anchor. Sporting a powder blue suit, boots, and a wide-brimmed fedora, Hamilton drew wild applause on the strength of his attire alone. Suffering the only sound casualty of the night, his deep, booming vocals were buried in the musical mix a few times throughout his 50-minute set. Accompanied by three backing singers, two males and one female, helped to strengthen the harmonies the vocalists were weaving but, again, their voices were hard to decipher at times.
Hamilton, another gifted and versatile singer, soared while performing his 2013 single “Best of Me” which showed off his band in superb form. The smooth, silky tune gave Hamilton a chance to show off his vocal command and drew favorable responses from the audience. In reverence of all the great R&B music that preceded his arrival, Hamilton slipped in verses from some classics within his performance. A snippet of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” and, later, a verse from Bill Withers’ 1971 hit “Grandma’s Hands” were classy tributes to the music that the singer was no doubt raised on. A long piano interlude led to a stunning version of “Superstar,” the often-covered 1969 Leon Russell-penned track. Recorded and released by a variety of artists, R&B heavyweight Luther Vandross scored a hit with the song in 1983. Hamilton name-checked Vandross at the conclusion of the song and cited him as one of his favorite singers in a classy move.
For those in attendance, this was a fantastic opportunity to catch some of the better and most-enduring performers who have done their fair share to help keep the spirit of classic R&B alive on one stage. While package tours like this can sometimes result in ramshackle, disjointed affairs, this event flowed well and treated fans to three solid performances from three varied stylists.