When I first saw the crowd that had come to watch Maxwell at the Hammersmith Apollo last Saturday, I should have known I’ll be in for a night to remember. It was one of the most beautifully diverse gathering of people I’ve ever seen at a gig; all ethnicities and ages represented here from your middle-aged bank manager types to your youngsters who looked like they’d be more comfortable bopping along to pop-R&B in the club than at a soul concert.
This bears testament to the far reaching appeal of Maxwell’s timeless tunes. People came from far and wide all dressed up and pretty, the air pungent with hair pomade suggesting some ladies had deemed the concert worthy of a visit to the salon. Best of all it was the kind of audience where you could walk up to random people and just spark a conversation without an ounce of self-consciousness-well at least if you’re the loquacious sort like me.
The venue was full to overflowing, every seat taken plus fans occupying the stairs and all the standing room available. It was so reassuring to know Maxwell has such a loyal fanbase over here. Having admired his artistry since I was 15 when he emerged in 1996 with his very successful debut Urban Hang Suite, I had taken it for granted that most people with a passing knowledge of R&B were familiar with Maxwell – they were at least in my circles. He made appearances on BBC1 and MTV UK early on his career and both Kiss and Choice FM (in their former incarnations) had him on heavy rotation; the exposure was definitely there.
However as time moved on, having experienced blank expressions when referring to his music and hearing similar tales from other Maxwell appreciators, I had come to the conclusion the man whose Afro once framed his perfectly sculpted jaw-line was regarded as niche (or so I was told). He had always danced to the beat of his own rare groove drum and hadn’t espoused the Hip Hop that had made his contemporaries such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo a household name.
Maxwell is also the kind of singer whose material you either have a decent grip on or you don’t at all. A true artist in that sense, each musical project is an event and you can’t just have a dalliance with a song or two-he draws you in completely. Was it that not enough British listeners had made the commitment? I was beginning to think aficionados of his music were an increasingly rarefied breed. Thankfully this show proved me wrong and brought us all under one roof for one night, at least.
There was no support act to warm the crowd so by the time the man himself mounted the stage looking dapper in his crooner’s suit* of which he is fond these days, the Apollo had reached fever pitch. The Maxwell faithful roared with appreciation as he launched into spirited renditions of ‘Somethin’ Somethin’, ‘Lifetime’ and ‘Get To Know You’. The Brooklyn native proved himself quite the energetic show man as he demonstrated James Brown-style splits and spins during the opening bars of ‘Bad Habits’.
“Will you forgive me,” he spoke-sang during an instrumental section of the song – “for taking, so long, 11 years [since he last toured the UK]?” Yes, Maxie baby, we forgive you. With a voice and smile like that we’ll forgive just about anything.
*Incidentally, Maxwell has been compared to and hailed by some as this generation’s answer to Marvin Gaye. The transition to legendary soul singer transcends just his voice and now extends to his get-up and slinky dance moves.
With this his comeback UK tour, Maxwell arrived intending to thrill; full band and the works including the excellent horns section which has come to define the ‘Maxwell sound’ in some respects. He teased the fellows in the crowd who might have been there as reluctant consorts to their wives or girlfriends. He joked that he was ‘setting them up for later’ when they were finally alone with special lady. Truth is the lads should have been more worried about actually holding onto their girl after experiencing Maxwell and his singing of sweet seductive nothings into our ears, recognising the many facets of our womanhood – mother, sister, lover and friend.
None was more surprised at his warm reception from this lively London crowd than Maxwell himself. He showed genuine gratitude and surprise that we hadn’t forgotten him after his eight year hiatus when, he admitted, so many popular artists go away, come back and fail to ignite the excitement of their former fans, seemingly forgotten. Absolutely not the case with Max as evident when the audience went apoplectic with excitement at the sound of the first strains of the R.Kelly-penned hit ‘Fortunate’. And when he sang the pitch perfect falsetto ad-lib at the start of ‘A Woman’s Work’ – it was all over; the whole place erupted with the delight of people whose eager anticipation to hear the song had finally been satisfied. In fact, having spoken to several Maxwell adherents before and after the show the Kate Bush cover made famous by the soul singer’s 1997 MTV Unplugged recording, was the one tune they had to hear that night.
As far as song selections go, Maxwell got the chemistry right blending in the crowd-pleasers with the less familiar new material from the first instalment of the BlackSummersNight trilogy. It is a notoriously difficult balance to strike and it was deftly handled by the soul maestro. Based on their ecstatic reaction, ‘Pretty Wings’ is the audience’s most beloved of his current material. I actually have a new-found appreciation for that song, now. There was, however one glaring omission from the repertoire and that was anything of note from sophomore album ‘Embrya’. Oh well, you can’t have it all.
From the instant, he released Urban Hang Suite it has been clear Maxwell is a vocalist first and foremost. Having listened to countless live recordings of his shows, it is still breathtaking to hear first-hand the sheer beauty and skill of his voice. His technique is flawless but not clinical, finding plenty of room in his delivery for raw emotion. He’s rightly esteemed for his impeccable control, his voice going wherever he wills without straying off pitch. Case in point – ‘A Woman’s Work’. As if we needed any reminding that song confirms that, with the exception perhaps of Brian McKnight and leftfield soul artist Tonéx, Maxwell has the best head-voice/falsetto amongst the fellows in the business. It’s a little raspier since the days of his MTV Unplugged performance but delicious nonetheless. When he serenaded us with ‘Til The Cops Come Knocking…’ I recalled my delight on first watching the promo clip to discover that he looked as beautiful as he sounded on the radio.
Maxwell saved the best for last; ‘Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)’. He got the crowd going with “It happened the moment…” and there was no stopping us. We went through the whole first verse and chorus acapella before the signature bassline kicked and the song was in full swing. To be honest, the audience were so energised with elation by that point, our singing almost drowned out that of the main man and his BGVs. Chanting along to, arguably, his most celebrated anthem with several thousand other euphoric Maxwell fans has to be one of the single best live music experiences of my life so far. He didn’t even try to follow it up with an encore, which was a shame… but who could blame him?
My fears that Maxwell was under-valued by us Brits were quickly dispelled during the show. Clearly, he remains in people’s consciousness as the purveyor of intelligent, classy music that he is-and still one of the best male vocalists our generation has seen.
I bumped into an acquaintance after the show, pleasantly surprised to find out she has love for Maxie-baby too. “You know,” she said, with a cheeky smile “I just don’t feel I can have a conversation with people who say they don’t know Maxwell.”
Having attended Saturday’s superb show, I reckon in this case, such elitism is wholly justified.
Maxwell plays the Brixton Academy on 13 November 09. Follow link for more details.
Review by Tolita.