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“Who the hell is Maxwell…?” voices whispered, as the guy with the crazy hair and tight pants sauntered onstage before a curious crowd at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium back in February 1996. There would be no room for this Greenwich Village-looking dude among fans of the Fugees and Groove Theory. Boos and hisses ensued shortly after the arrival of this brother from another planet, and the cutthroat Howardites never let up until he had vanished. “He looked like a combination of Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Terence Trent D’arby,” recalls one attendee. “I didn’t know what was up with him.”
“I loved it,” laughs Maxwell, recalling the infamous night. “It was cool because it made me be more me, you know?…I knew there was no way that anyone would know who the hell I was, being that it was two months before a single, let alone a video, would ever come out. It’s been a cool road for me, because it’s, like, any obstacle has always made me get more focused as to who I am, what I’m trying to be, and what I’m tryin’ to be about. Sometimes when you’re new, it takes a moment for people to go, ‘All right, coolI get it.’”
Fast-forward a year and a half to the Warner Theatre on a muggy July evening. People have gotten it. The sold-out concert is the first in a two-night stand in support of Maxwell’s now-platinum Urban Hang Suite. Folks holding $37.50 tickets are waiting outside, queuing up to see the man who had gone from being a weird nobody to a unique somebody with a trademark sound and style.
Arriving inside, I’m not surprised to see that the theater is fairly empty; but Zhané, Maxwell’s opening act, still performs as if the joint is packed. Co-lead singer Renée Neufville seems to be shaking her head as if to relay her disappointment at the sparse crowd. But the people who did arrive early give much love, and her spirits seem lifted by the time the duo rolls off the stage. “Get ready for the beautiful Maxwell!” Neufville shouts. “And how beautiful he is…” The crowd roars in anticipation.
About 15 minutes later the lights dim, and the audience, mostly women, shouts in gleeful expectancy. Maxwell’s background singer LaTina Webb sashays out first, in a long, beautiful pink gown with a white fur-looking wrap, singing as she walks to her place onstage. The woman in front of me, like most of the women in the room clearly uninterested in Webb, waves her hand as if she’s shooing a bug: “Forget her….Where’s Maxwell?”
Suddenly, the stage goes dark and deafening screams erupt, as a tall, slender silhouette with a crown of unruly, curly hair approaches the top of a makeshift lighted stairway. He has arrived. An intriguing figure in a cream-colored suit with a yellow shirt and peach tie, he moves his hips in that certain way, and the women in front of me swoon. (OK, so do I.)
“Damn, he’s sexy,” relays one woman to her girlfriend.
“Yes, girl!” her friend acknowledges with a push on the shoulder.
The eight-piece band then breaks into the uptempo “Welcome.” Only afterward does he address the crowd: “D.C.! Are y’all ready?” the West Indian-Puerto Rican loveman shouts in a deep, raspy voice. The response is overwhelming. It’s hard to believe, looking around at the hundreds of well-dressed, perfumed, zealous fans, that a short time ago this same brother got dissed unmercifully.
“Dancewitme” follows, a midtempo mellow-groove type thang, and Maxwell’s velvety falsetto breaks loose, bringing to mind the haunting vocals of Marvin Gaye. But it isn’t just Maxwell’s I Want You vibe that gets his fans going. “He got the moves, girl. I’m telling you, I didn’t know he moved like that!” exclaims my buddy.
Song after song, gyration after gyration, Maxwell is turning girls into Silly Putty. I’m honestly surprised panties haven’t started flying up onstage. Still, it’s interesting to see how many fellas are digging this performer who seems designed to melt the hearts of women.
It turns out, though, that Mr. Loveman has added a new piece just for the boys. Maxwell embarks on a discussion with certain female audience members about some of their unendearing ways: “I wanna take a moment to talk to y’all. I got a couple of things to break down. Some-a y’all ladiesnot allI’m talking about a specific groupsome-a y’all be triflin’…”
The crowd loses it.
“I know you busy hangin’ out with your girlfriends and gettin’ your Lee Press-On Nails, but call a brotha and let him know what’s up! Fellas, are y’all with me?” he pleads, throwing his arms out at his sides in exasperation. The guys go wild. Has the man who worships the ground women walk on just busted his beloved females?
Even the quiet and seemingly indifferent brother on my right has come to life, as he and other men join Maxwell on the chorus of the new “Sick and Tired.” Laughter echoes throughout the venue; it appears Maxwell has officially won the hearts of both genders tonight.
The evening eventually winds down after the second encore, in which Maxwell, now dressed in a leopard-print shirt beneath a shiny dark green trench coat, breaks loose, appearing to improvise on some old-school dance moves. Shaking his head in seeming disbelief and laughing, Maxwell appears to be in awe of the adoration given him by a city that tried to run him off the stage not long ago.
“A lot of people are always ready to underestimate things concerning me,” he states. “It’s been that way from Day 1. But I’ve always had a strong sense of self. Things will turn out the way they need to in the end.” He pauses for a second.
“Things definitely have changed.”CP