Two things were immediately clear at Maxwell’s Long Center show on Tuesday night.
First, characteristic silky falsetto to brassy, belted tenor, his pipes are in fantastic shape. From the time the neo-soul titan took the stage, ushered in by a sexy sax solo, to kick off his set with the 1996 jam "Sumthin’ Sumthin’" to the inevitable conclusion, a gloriously lush and beautiful rendition of the 2009 Grammy Award winner "Pretty Wings," the show sounded incredible.
Second, the singer, who turned 41 in May, is in top form physically. A few songs into the set he dropped into the splits onstage. A couple sun salutations and other yogic affectations peppered the performance. The man is still a sex machine and the ladies, who noticeably outnumbered the men in the crowded house, loved it.
Showmanship aside, it was the timeless, outstanding quality of the music that defined the show. Backed by a top-notch seven-piece ensemble, he moved back and forth through his catalog, smoothly transitioning through moods and motifs. Heavy with lover’s rock, tracks like "Bad Habits" had the couples (and the single ladies) grooving while songs like "Lifetime" were poignant soulful reflections, ringing with depth and understanding. An extended take on "Ascension" complete with an a capella intro and a series of incredibly funky breakdowns near the end of the show got the crowd ridiculously hyped.
But there were a few strange moments. The stage went dark, with trails of dancing lights on the backdrop for the intro to "This Woman’s Work." A woman’s voice powerfully carried the first verse, but when the lights came up they revealed Maxwell with his back to the audience and his arms in the air listening to a recorded track while his live female backup singer stood silently back. All was forgiven when he took the mic to unwind the vocal acrobatics of his breathtakingly beautiful cover of the Kate Bush song, but why he would opt to not engage in human interaction with the live singer was unclear.
Similarly, he performed the Alicia Keys duet "Fire We Make" kneeling in front of a 40-foot video of the stunning soul diva. Perhaps some sort of licensing rights prevent him from performing the song with anyone other than Keys, but like the hologram reincarnations that were a thing a few summers back, the effect was less than fully captivating.
A few new songs from his scheduled late summer release were mixed into the set and much of the material seems promising, but one track which referenced getting down like "the old folks do" and included the decidedly unsexy image of cracking eggs on his lady’s back (which sounded like it might be some sort of euphemism until he threw in some salt and pepper) seemed like a misfire. Another new track "took us to church" with powerful organ riffs and lyrical reverence, but oddly, the staging included a massive projection of a scantily clad woman rubbing mud on her body in the backdrop.
Nonetheless, these distractions didn’t dampen the spirits of the enthusiastic crowd who cheered madly and skillfully executed singalongs. By the end of the night folks were dancing in the aisles, a pair of yellow panties had landed on stage and the vibe in the room was nothing but love, love, love.