There’s something way-cool seeing a full classical orchestra accompany a cornrowed, ponytailed R&B crooner in a bow-tied tux on the stage of the hallowed Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center. These disparate images were refreshingly exciting, however, and broke down stereotypes of what we were told could be — so needed in these times. And yet, Maxwell, that smooth-as-silk crooner, could not have been more elegantly at home in the splendid company of the NSO Pops as the effervescent Steven Reineke, conductor, presented the first concert of the new season, Maxwell: A Night at the Symphony.
DC is absolutely wild about Maxwell (he’s here for a precedent-breaking four-night run) and he kept a full house of adoring, die-hard fans (who knew the words to every song and didn’t hold back) in the palm of his hands for a 90-minute set. The NSO Pops yielded to his entrance with little fanfare before he took center stage after the explosive Split this Rock spoken word ensemble provided warmup.
Maxwell, who has been called the “Marvin Gaye of the 90s,” developed his own style as a singer, self-taught musician and record producer, drawing on his strong Brooklyn roots and Haitian/Puerto Rican heritage. He is among the very first pioneers (along with D’Angelo and Erykah Badu) of “neo-soul,” a contemporary R&B tinged with smooth jazz, if that gives you a better idea of Maxwell’s unique sound.
But to experience Maxwell in concert is not only to hear him, but also to feel him in a deeply personal way. Maxwell has a way of impacting an audience that is strong yet gentle, cool but sexy-hot. He insists on making a real connection and had special Kennedy Center security require that everyone entering the Concert Hall turn off their cell phones and pouch them until they exited his performance. It paid off big time, and he told the crowd that, “I have not felt a connection to an audience like you in a long time.”
He brought his own backup band including vocalist Latina Webb, who has been with him for the past 26 years, along with Hod David, his longtime guitarist and collaborative co-writer; fellow Brooklynite Shedrick Mitchell on piano, Derrick Hodge on bass, and Darryl Howell on drums. They framed his matinee idol performance along with the NSO Pops who embellished every song with dramatic edge through sweeping crescendos, heartthrob percussion, and lilting flute solos while the strings added romantic charm.
Urban Hang Suite, Embrya and the Grammy-winning BLACKsummer’snight, Maxwell albums that cover his decades-long-career, were fertile ground for presenting a dozen of some of his best-known and most beloved songs. Starting off with “Bad Habits” you knew the crowd had come to party. Spontaneous singalongs and dancing in the aisles peppered an evening of funky music by one of the coolest singers around.
Maxwell’s smoldering slow-burn tempo and quiet storm continued as he dedicated his concert to all the “grown and sexy lovers in the house.” Sexy falsettos spiked “Fortunate” as the lyrics swore to the audience that he was “so glad that you are in my life.” We believed him.
He dedicated “Lifetime” (pierced by a penetrating keyboard solo by Shedrick Mitchell) to all those incarcerated unjustly. On “Sumthin/Sumthin” Maxwell showed off his showmanship and dance grooves dipping low in slow, sexy moves accenting a Love Jones quality from the movie soundtrack.
Continuing a movie soundtrack vibe, Maxwell brought a socially conscious awareness as he introduced a breast-cancer survivor in the audience who had just had her last chemo treatment, asking the audience to sing a refrain with him as he dedicated Kate Bush’s film score song “This Woman’s Work” to all battling cancer with the lyrics:
Pray God you can cope
I’ll stand outside
This woman’s work
This woman’s world
Ooooh it’s hard on a man
Now his part is over
Now starts the craft of the Father
I know you’ve got a little life in you left
I know you’ve got a lot of strength left
I know you’ve got a little life in you yet
I know you’ve got a lot of strength left
On “Whenever/Wherever” Maxwell’s tux jacket came off as he mentioned that a couple in the audience had gotten married to this song, while on “Ascension” a man shouted from the balcony, “My wife loves YOU.” Hopefully, these were not the same guys!
Maxwell was recognized by the Congressional Black Caucus with a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts at its Annual Legislative Conference last week. But his humility and uplifting spirit gave a deeper meaning to his lineup of soulful, chart-topping songs as he told the audience to “Follow your dreams” and shared that fame meant absolutely nothing to him, rather “We are the people we touch and who we inspire.”
An encore of the Grammy-winning “Pretty Wings” fused breezy wind-chimes with romantic intimations and was a fitting close to a Maxwell love-fest.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
NSO Pops: Maxwell: A Night at the Symphony runs through September 21, 2019, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall — 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or go online.