From the moment Maxwell walked onstage in a tuxedo with a tailcoat, looking simultaneously dapper and funky, there was never a doubt that this symphony experiment would be anything but exhilarating.
“We’re gonna have a sexy time tonight,” the soul prince said early in Friday’s 90-minute concert, and he maintained that promise.
Whether grinding his pelvis near the mic stand during “Fortunate” or dedicating “Lifetime” to those unjustly incarcerated, Maxwell remained a riveting figure on the stage at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park.
Even more impressive was Maxwell’s ability to work the room, considering the fabulous Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was stacked behind him and members of his longtime band – Hod David (guitar), Shedrick Mitchell (piano), Derrick Hodge (bass) and Darryl Howell (drums) – clumped closer to the front of the stage.
Maxwell, 46, recently triumphed through a quartet of shows in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra, and Atlanta was the only other city chosen for a symphonic pairing.
He clearly had a cheery rapport with conductor Steven Reineke, as the duo smacked hands after “Get to Know You.” Reineke smiled frequently when he would turn to witness Maxwell slinking around the mic stand like a boxer or dodging an undergarment thrown from a zealous admirer.
It’s admittedly impossible not to be charmed by Maxwell’s presence. He’s honest (“This is for the seven people who bought the album,” he joked before a track from his poorly received 1998 second album, “Embrya”) and gracious (“Thank you for letting the music be an accessory to your life”). And his silken soul voice sounded in top form throughout the show.
He ended the spirited “Whenever Wherever Whatever” with a victorious vocal run and a huge smile and gyrated through the high notes of “Til the Cops Come Knockin’” with admirable fluidity (both vocal and physical).
Although the layers of the Atlanta Symphony nicely augmented Maxwell’s soul-funk compositions, he made sure to spotlight the musicians who know him best.
Dark string tones coated “Symptom Unknown” and Maxwell poured his dramatic instincts into the song before trading verses with Latina Webb, his vocal compadre for more than two decades. Mitchell also dazzled on the winding song with a lovely piano solo.
Maxwell engaged cozily with the crowd, which filled about 80 percent of the venue and had no choice but to engage back since the singer instituted a no cell phone policy (phones were placed in Yondr bags at entry). It allowed for a blissful, distraction-free evening, during which focus could be directed where it always belongs – on the performer.
Now 27 years into his career, Maxwell is at a stage where experimentation and risks are not only admired, but expected. He can consider this artistic detour a rousing success.
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