I asked my date why she loved Maxwell so much. She said, “He seems to understand.”
He certainly isn’t any more punctual than your average guy. He was more than a half-hour late to the first of his six sold-out shows at Constitution Hall. The doors stayed shut through the sound check, as a very upscale, predominantly African-American crowd of devotees milled around outside buying overpriced soft drinks and sweating in their fancy duds. Vendors also hawked Maxwell T-shirts and binoculars. One of the local radio stations was kind enough to give out cheap fans, like the kind they use in Baptist churches.
The comedian who opened for Maxwell was a black woman of the sister-you-go-girl variety in thigh-high leather boots who cited the pitfalls of great sex (“Good dick will make you stupid”) and urged the women in the audience to stop trying to get their “groove back” by screwing younger men. At first, it seemed counterintuitive to open what would most likely be a musical spectacle with mere jokes, but the sister’s material resonated perfectly with its intended audience. By the time she’d finished praising the “independent women” who had “bought their own damn tickets to Maxwell,” the message was clear: Laugh now, fellas—in a minute we won’t need you anymore.
As the show started, it was hard to tell which was most piercing—the ice-blue lights that shot from behind near-sheer white curtains, the screams of adoring women, or Maxwell’s own high-pitched voice as he elongated the syllables “D.C.” from somewhere out of sight. The curtains rose to reveal Maxwell in a white Saturday Night Feverish suit over a T-shirt and matching ’70s-era tinted sunglasses. He wore a Jamaican-style skully over his legendary locks that looked just enough out of place that you knew it was coming off sooner or later. He had a six-piece band and—is he serious?—lava lamps all over the stage.
The flash and foreplay segued into “Luxury: Cococure,” the first single off of Maxwell’s second, only mildly successful, and blandly ethereal album, Embrya. The collection is filled with songs that have inaccessible titles like “Gestation: Mythos/Everwanting to Want You to Want” and “Eachhoureachsecondeachminuteeachday: Of My Life.” (Yes, all but two out of 11 cuts have an unnecessary colon in the title.) Despite the fact that Embrya was critically panned and is, in fact, kind of dull, it is apparently widely appreciated as mood music. A friend of mine wouldn’t even lend it to me for a couple of days because his girlfriend was coming to visit. “I need it,” he said firmly. Sure enough, as the evening went on and Maxwell performed songs from Embrya, most of the fan-filled audience could not sing along. They seemed to be discovering the songs for the first time, having previously used the album only as background for more engaging activities.
Stuff from his first album, on the other hand, got the crowd—both ladies and gentlemen—up singing and dancing. Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite has more than its share of irresistible grooves. “Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” with its bounce and coy proposition, translated well to the live show. Come to think of it, much of Suite is a proposition. Buried in Maxwell’s lulling arrangements, songs like “Welcome” seem pretty unassuming. But done live and punctuated by flashing stage lights and Maxwell’s uncharacteristic pelvic thrusts, lyrics such as “Am I still welcome anytime I want some?” take on the full weight of their euphemistic naughtiness.
All in all, it’s probably better when Maxwell is clear about what he wants. When he sang “D.C., I want you,” we knew he probably meant “I want you to spend $45 a head for six nights to come and see me,” regardless of what the women in the audience might have hoped. On the other hand, when he informed us that there are “no divisions” and “no limitations” and that “you are me, we are you,” I think we were all a little in the dark. “Y’all understand what I’m talking about?” he asked. Um, no, not really. But it didn’t matter, because then he took his jacket off.
Having obviously read the same article in Blaze magazine that I did pronouncing wife-beater tank tops to be cool, Maxwell worked his muscular mojo underneath one all night. Joined by his sexy female backup singer, he danced to a Middle Easternized instrumental of Redman’s “Da Goodness.” My date, between longing stares and declarations of “He’s still the bomb,” admitted that Maxwell seemed to have acquired a few extra hip joints since he last played D.C., a couple of years ago. His added gyrations, a la Michael Jackson, were more disturbing than enticing. Actually, Maxwell’s whole technique was reminiscent of another of Joe Jackson’s spawn: Though not a bad dancer, Janet’s moves always seem forced and showy. Maxwell, too, moved less than naturally, as if he had had to pick it all up for the sake of the tour. His voice, on the other hand, has been there from the beginning.
Setting off the first of at least two massive group orgasms that night, Maxwell abruptly dropped the hype level to near zero and slid into “This Woman’s Work.” His Unplugged version of Kate Bush’s ballad is remarkably moving. And his live rendition was faithful and flawless, despite the cheesy addition of “D.C.” to a line or two. This song undoubtedly lends a great deal to the Maxwell mythos; although he didn’t pen it himself, the man does bring a lot of extra tenderness to its words.
The show’s least adorned, most innocent moment did not last long. Soon a huge square monitor was descending from the ceiling over Maxwell’s head. The strobing screen’s only purpose was to illuminate the star as he descended a short stairwell that lit up under his feet like something out of MJ’s “Billie Jean” video. Coming from above, below, and lasers staged all around him, the light deified the singer. Ladies, get those fans ready—it’s worship time. As he launched into some more nameless tunes from Embrya, the hat finally came off, revealing Maxwell’s fine cornrows, which hung loosely off the back of his head. Orgasm No. 2.
Living up to his nice-guy reputation, Maxwell took a break to thank the crowd, assure us that he was still “by no way, shape, or form used to any of this,” and let women bring him flowers. Even a romantic ideal like Maxwell is not above reproach from an audience of black women: They collectively booed as he kissed the face and hand of a white woman who brought him a bouquet. But he appeased them easily by accepting gifts from a couple of sisters. He also brought a young woman straining through binoculars in the boondocks down to sit in the first row. Contrived, but still sweet. Straddling a simple chair, wife-beater partially covered with a sheer white shirt, he then told the story of an estranged couple in Cincinnati whom he had reunited by reading the husband’s pining letter on stage at one of his shows. Aww…He’s not only a sex god; he’s an angel of love, too.
As he began the more lustful “Til the Cops Come Knockin’,” he shouted, “I know y’all a hell of a lot nastier than that….Don’t let the decor fool you.” Although I’d never considered lava lamps to be particularly misleading, it was good to hear Maxwell finally getting down to the heart of the matter. His more sexual material had at least one couple up and grinding in the aisle. “Submerge: Til We Become the Sun” kicked off with the sounds of a woman moaning, and, right on cue, Maxwell took his top off—again. Didn’t these women ever get tired of screaming?
Somewhere among the howls of pleasure, he managed to squeeze in a disclaimer along the lines of “It’s not about the sex”; rather, it seems, it’s about trying to “become your girl’s best friend.” The interesting thing about Maxwell is that his lyrics are relatively chaste compared with most male R&B artists’. But whether or not he shakes his ass and bares his biceps, when he sings about painting toenails and making women breakfast, his words have twice the ripening effect of your garden-variety bumper-grinder. It could be that he thinks like a woman. Or maybe he thinks like a man and just knows how to make it sound good to women. Either way, he does understand something. The great thing about Maxwell is that what he knows doesn’t matter one bit. There’s only one of him, and he’s unlikely to run out of hot, exotic models to date before his pretty little braids fall out.
So the rest of us slobs have nothing to worry about; the women are stuck with us. By the end of the show, most of the men must have realized as much and were clapping and swaying right along with the womenfolk. The band closed with “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder),” a delightfully uplifting tune, after which I would have been happy to walk out of the auditorium. It wasn’t until I heard the insatiable women chanting “Fortunate!” that I realized that Maxwell had given in to one of the slimiest ploys in show business: the fake encore. You know, when the headliner purposely leaves out his most popular or most current hit, exits the stage, and milks the crowd for applause. Maxwell re-emerged in a tight leather outfit and did a hyper-extended version of the radio single, first as a ballad and then as a funked-out dance jam complete with disco ball and “Oooah, oooah” ’70s call and response. “Do y’all want to get down and disco?” Sure, it sounds corny, but by that point the man could do no wrong. Just to make sure, he took his jacket off one more time. CP