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Live review: Maxwell at the Hollywood Bowl

October 17, 2009 | 11:48 am
The soul singer known simply as Maxwell made a lot of demands on his audience Friday night at the Hollywood Bowl.

At one point, during a long improvised bit at the end of his version of “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush, he declared, “God made us to love,” and therefore, “I don’t care what you believe as long as you believe in something bigger than yourself.”

Later, he had the crowd sing an entire verse of his song “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)” as he conducted happily from center stage.

But none of Maxwell’s expectations Friday matched the magnitude (or the specificity) of the one he mentioned during “Stop the World,” which inspired one female fan to launch a pair of lacy underwear onstage.

“Does your panty color match your pedicure?” the singer wanted to know. “If not, you better go on.”

Last year Maxwell returned to the music scene after a lengthy break; he’d released his most recent album, “Now,” in 2001. A successful fall tour demonstrated that his fan base hadn’t lost its taste for Maxwell’s brainy brand of R&B, and this summer his excellent comeback disc, “BLACKsummers'night,” debuted atop Billboard’s album chart.
So you could understand his confident insistence at the Bowl: If color coordination is what Maxwell wants, color coordination is what Maxwell gets.

Still, what was most interesting about Friday’s 100-minute show was the contrast it provided with the singer’s carefully cultivated in-studio persona. On his records Maxwell tends toward lofty examinations of love’s psycho-spiritual properties; he sings about romance as an existential ideal rather than as a lived experience. There’s plenty of sex in his music — one of his early hits is called “…Til the Cops Come Knockin’” — but not much sweat.

At the Bowl, with his image blown up across several enormous video screens, Maxwell was visibly drenched in sweat before he’d finished his first song. Whirling across the stage as his 10-piece band jabbed out bumptious funk licks, he was a man more interested in the physical than in the philosophical.

That shift in concentration took a toll on Maxwell’s music, which draws its power from its precision and delicacy. “This Woman’s Work” sounded ragged and overdone, and “Pretty Wings” lacked the gorgeously ethereal quality that distinguishes the version on “BLACKsummers’night.”

“I can’t control the feeling,” he sang in the new album’s “Bad Habits,” and that was too true: Straining his voice to suit the venue’s expansive dimensions, Maxwell sacrificed the trademark sumptuousness of his studio material.

Surprisingly, though, he almost made up for it with an abundance of goofball charm, flexing an appealing side of his personality he rarely reveals on his albums. “If you ain’t slow-dancing with your girl right now, you crazy,” he said during “Fortunate.” “And if you ain’t found a girl yet, you crazier.”

Near the end of the concert, after his observation that “the prettiest babies are made from the best sex in the world,” Maxwell performed a stretch of accompanied recitative that began with a reservation at Nobu and wound up with the singer dipping his lover in soy sauce and wasabi. Why? “’Cause I like it spicy.”

Who knew?

-- Mikael Wood

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