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Review: Maxwell turns up the heat at Ruth Eckerd Hall




(This is the 36th entry in Soundcheck's summer concert series, The 50-50 Club. For previous entries, click here.)

There is no way to tell exactly how many of the fans at Maxwell's sold-out concert at Ruth Eckerd Hall had sex Thursday night. But I'm guessing it was in the hundreds.

I'm no mathematician, but Ruth Eckerd holds 2,180 people. At least half of them were there with their significant manperson or ladyperson. And if you were a couple, and you went to that show, and you didn't knock boots after the fact, there is something seriously wrong with your relationship.

Because within minutes of Maxwell jogging onstage in a natty black suit and shades, swirling and kicking and splitting and thrusting his way through the funky lovemaker Get to Know Ya ...

Hot. Damn. I was practically ready to leap onstage and make love to the man myself. I'm pretty sure my wife would have understood.

"I'm sorry," the woman next to me cautioned as the house lights dimmed and the curtain went up. "There will be a lot of screaming from me."

"It's okay," I said. "I might scream too."

Released after an eight-year hiatus, Maxwell's uniquely sultry BLACKsummers'night debuted at No. 1 on the charts this month, and I think it's on track for an Album of the Year Grammy nomination.

As you can imagine, it's an understatement to say fans in the crowd were counting down the days to this concert.

See, in the broadest sense, I like rock music -- alternative rock, indie rock, electronic rock -- and so there are countless concerts available for me, as a music fan, to check out on any given night of the week.

But if I were a fan of R&B and neo-soul, that wouldn't be the case. Mega-sexy, mega-talented, mega-classy R&B singers are in short supply these days, and they don't tour that often. If I loved neo-soul, this concert would have been circled on my calendar since the day it was announced.

I don't know the man personally, but going in, Maxwell seemed like he could be an enigmatic, reclusive stage presence, a guy whose simmering sexuality was tempered by a need to seem mysterious onstage. Certainly, the photo restrictions he levied on the audience didn't help matters. Photojournalists were required to stand in the back of the building, and fans were warned repeatedly not to snap pictures druing the set.

"No photography of any kind," an ominous voice warned before the show. "No photography of any kind. You will be removed. You will. Be. Removed."

Okay then.

One thing about Ruth Eckerd Hall: When they say a show starts at 8 p.m., by god, the show starts at 8 p.m. I got there at 8:05 p.m., and the opener, Grammy-winning R&B songstress Chrisette Michele, was already in the middle of her first song.

Michele's stage setup was about as simple as you could imagine -- a drummer, two keyboardists and a dress of silver and robin's-egg blue. But awash in gold and purple light, she warbled jazzily through a series of jams both slow and sassy. Between songs, she spoke in a whip-quick cadence about relationships, Michael Jackson, her own insecurities and more.

Claps exploded throughout the building on the swaggering What You Do. The best part: She closed with the sultry If I Have My Way, during which she whipped out spot-on impressions of John Legend, Erykah Badu and Anita Baker (which killed).

Then it was time for Maxwell, and any misconceptions I had about him being a restrained, held-back performer went straight out the window.

Backed by an 11-piece band -- including guitarist Melvin "Wah-Wah" Watson, a former Motown Records studio man who played on Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On and Barry White's Can't Get Enough, among countless others -- Maxwell kicked into Get to Know Ya, off 2001's Now, with abandon, kicking, thrusting and doing splits. He dropped to his knees during Sumthin' Sumthin'. During Bad Habits, he fell to the stage and did one-handed push-ups, humping the stage

My god. Nick Jonas never heard screams like this. These were the screams of women, not girls, full-grown women who know what it means to make love, and who wanted nothing more than to experience the act with Mr. Max.

Oh, and don't think Maxwell didn't know it.

"Can we do something nasty right now?" he said at one point. "Maybe not too nasty; maybe just you-get-on-top-and-you-take-control nasty." He proceeded to burn through Everwanting: To Want You To Want, lying on his back onstage and rolling around with the mic stand. I'm 97 percent sure that mic stand is pregnant right now.

Pretty Wings was even sexier, a slow-burning, fast-rising slow jam that sounded like a hymn. And before rolling up his sleeves for Simply Beautiful, he told all the men he would get their women "percolating" for them. "This is the part of the show where you don't have to do nothing but unbutton your pants, because it's all going down," he said to massive screams.

Here's a nice metaphor for the night: On the R. Kelly-penned Fortunate, someone threw a thong onstage (I swear it wasn't me). Maxwell picked it up and twirled it around, then draped it over the mic and kept singing. That's right: Maxwell sang directly into a woman's panties. Of course he did.


All sexual bon mots aside: The man is a phenomenal performer. He didn't miss a step all night.

Vocally, he's not showy like Stevie, but soulful like Marvin and steamy like Prince. "I'll give you a sharp, I'll give you a flat," he said at one point, "but I'll never give you a lip-synch." He should be selling out arenas year-round, and he most definitely should not wait another eight years before releasing a follow-up to BLACKsummers'night.

The guy behind me saw my notebook and told me Maxwell was a modern-day Sam Cooke. "He's a modern-day Sam Cooke," he said. He made a point of telling me twice.

I never saw Sam Cooke, so I can't speak to that. But I will say this: Maxwell's signature version of the Kate Bush song This Woman's Work was the single best performance of any one song I've seen all summer. Backed by a piano, his chill-inducing falsetto was simple but show-stopping, and the audience sang like a choir behind him.

"It is hotter than a mother up in here," he said afterward.

Indeed. Mercy, mercy me.

Next up in The 50-50 Club: Snoop Dogg and Slightly Stoopid, July 31, USF Sun Dome, Tampa.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos by Luis Santana.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:11pm]


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