Review: Maxwell wiggles, croons and draws screams from the crowd at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall
On the same day that moviegoers headed to theaters to catch a biopic on the hardest working man in show business, Maxwell came to Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall to try to reclaim the title among the living.
The 41-year-old R&B singer spent just as much of his hourlong set leading his band as he did laying his velvety falsetto over the near-capacity crowd. It’s his second visit to the venue since his last album release, BLACKsummer’snight in 2009, and much of the performance featured standards from his early works Embrya and Now.
Still, even a predictable setlist can be electrifying when a showman tackles audience expectations. Maxwell opened with Sumthin’ Sumthin’, quickly getting the crowd on board from the first note, and introduced what will henceforth be called the “granddaddy wiggle” – a full-squat hip shake that looks out of place on stage but right at home on the family reunion dance floor. The crowd of mostly women was living for it, squealing each time he bent his knees and showed his age. His signature falsetto was as resonant live as on any record he’s ever recorded, giving fans an aural treat when he made subtle changes to their favorites while still retaining what made the songs great.
After more granddaddy wiggling through early work, Maxwell turned toward his most recent hit, Bad Habits, to set a sexier mood and draw down the energy in the room to make space for his bandmates' solos.
At the halfway mark of the 13-song set, the opening piano chords to This Woman’s Work sent the room into a frenzy and the showman teased the fervor by letting his backup singer sing the first verse on her own as he faced the band. When he slowly turned around, walked to the mic stand, bent his knees and let out the first moan, ‘Give me these moments…” the screaming had faded only because the women were getting hoarse.
To perform Alicia Keys’ The Fire We Make, Maxwell sang with a projected video of the fellow New Yorker, improvising and dry-humping the stage when he deemed it necessary.
“She means yes, yes, yes,” he jokingly freestyled during Keys’ chorus of no’s. By the ninth song of the night, the set have devolved into a jam session as each musician got to feel their way around the drummer’s lead. “This is the ‘we don’t care, we just here’ part of the show,” Maxwell said. “We don’t rehearse, we just do something, like making love. You can’t kiss her on the same spot every night.“
Ten minutes into the groove, a broken down version of Fistful of Tears emerged – rawer and more melancholy the original – like a cathartic release.
Maxwell and the band closed the night with the classic Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder) and encored with Pretty Wings, the lead single from BLACKsummer’snight.
“You guys are such a nice audience,” he said while bowing at edge of stage with his arms locked with his bandmates. “It must be a slow season.”
The audience’s laughter could still be heard in the parking lot.
-- Robbyn Mitchell, tbt*