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Smokin' Grooves

Smooth Operator: Maxwell.

Maxwell does Nine Inch Nails

By Todd S. Inoue

There's a little sumthin' sumthin' special about soul singer Maxwell. Most R&B artists are either panty-obsessed (R. Kelly, Dru Hill) or mired in scandal (Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown), but Maxwell is the indirect type, a smooth operator.

His album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, offers delicious R&B powered by two really good songs--"Ascension" and the hit, "Sumthin' Sumthin'." Critics have lauded him with lofty comparisons to Prince and even Marvin Gaye. I had to figure him out, so I procured seats to his sold-out Oakland Paramount show.

The concert started late and, despite reports, was far from sold out. At about 9:30pm, an announcement was made apologizing for the delay (travel problems with the equipment) and promising that Zhané would be up shortly.

Zhané--the duo of Reneé Neufville and Jean Norris--showed off priceless pipes. "Feel the Vibe," "Groove Thang," "Request Line (555-0429)," "Crush," "Saturday Night" and "Hey, Mr. DJ" rendered the group's two backup singers obsolete. Why isn't Zhané as popular as SWV?

Heir Maxwell

And how was Maxwell? Terrific in many ways. The young lion had panache, suave stage presence and a creamy falsetto. He possessed few of Prince's dynamic qualities, but that's not to say he wasn't a complete gentleman.

The stage was a bi-level, with a staircase splitting it down the middle. The entire space was swathed in white curtains and columns. A sole microphone stood at the center of the stage, and a disco ball swirled above.

"Welcome" got the party started. A drummer, percussionist, saxophonist, guitarist, bassist and three backup singers pumped out lite-funk. Maxwell's silhouette appeared, and bedlam broke out. As he descended the staircase, it was as if royalty had arrived.

Two electric fans at the front kept his white crepe suit, gold tie and blow-out Afro in constant motion. He slinked around, huge mutton chops parenthesizing a golden smile.

"Dance With Me" and "Sumthin' Sumthin'" got the first rises of the night. He interpolated bits of "(Last Night) A DJ Saved My Life" and Ready for the World's "Love You Down." A microphone stand served as a prop during "... Til the Cops Come Knockin'," Maxwell stroking it like a long, moisturized leg.

A white curtain was lowered behind him, and he performed Kate Bush's "Crush" as a delicate lullaby. The curtain lifted to reveal the band crashed out on the steps, a futon waiting for Max. "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever" was rendered tenderly, like a funky Johnny Mathis song.

But things weren't all mellow. At one point, Maxwell hilariously broke down what kind of guy he was: the kind who'd scrub your back, paint your toenails and go to the grocery store and buy you Tampons. It elicited the loudest roar I've heard in a long time.

New Nails

In a way, the show was too choreographed. One elaborate sequence involved a backup singer who escapes Maxwell's grasp, another found him escalating an illuminated stairway on beat. They were entertaining bits, but I'd trade them in for some spontaneous lunacy. I've been to enough shows to know when the performer has recited the same punch lines too many times--just watch the faces of the backup band to reveal clues.

The crowd must have shared the concern during "The Lady Suite," when Maxwell pronounced that "this was the final song" and people started filing out. Like really filing out, as if the music video had ended and they had hit the remote switch. Too bad. Maxwell returned to perform an incredible 10-minute version of "Ascension" before the band left the stage again. More people emptied out.

But check this out. With the theater half-empty, the band came out five minutes later to reassemble Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" to fit Maxwell's soulful style. He altered the charted course and felt the vibe, delivering call-and-response figures as if he were the new James Brown.

He returned chants of "Go Maxwell, Go Maxwell" with versions of old-school dance moves: the MC Hammer, the Cabbage Patch and a very funny Running Man (complete with midbeat pause). This spark of hard-core jollies turned into a burning torch that quickly spread the nonstop groove up and down the aisles as people hurried to get closer to the stage.

"I thought if I was lucky, I'd be writing songs for Patti Labelle or something," he confessed during a midshow break. "Thank you so much for accepting me and giving me this opportunity to make music for you."

With less practice and more moments, Maxwell could find himself up there with his heroes. Go Maxwell, go Maxwell, go!

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Web exclusive to the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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