Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maxwell's Suite

For the record, the best $3.13 I've ever spent was for a copy of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite in May 1996 dug out of a remainder bin in a dusty record store (now defunct) in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. I remember very clearly looking at the cover and deciding to buy the record on the sole basis of the title, thinking to myself: this is surely some soul music. I was 9 months into my first job and this was the first bit of whimsy I had indulged in all that time, the first thing I had bought for myself beyond bare necessities in all those months. For some silly reason I had worked myself into a state of thrift, subsisting at times on those "bags of burgers" that were the rage at McDonalds - 10 cheeseburgers for something like $4. Well I digress, we'll tackle that toli later... I remember also the look of interest as the guy at the counter rang up my purchase: "Looks like some soul, let me know what you think of it".

When I got to my room, I found the turntable, played the record and discovered that I was in possession of some exceptional soul music, a suite, a trip. This was a new voice that demanded attention, someone I would be proselytizing for even if he wouldn't need it. Looking at the credits I read names that gave me further comfort: Stuart Matthewman of Sade looked to be a key collaborator. Amp Fiddler and Wah Wah Watson were among the musical cast. I dug the voice, I dug the production values, I dug the sound, I dug the message, I dug the execution.

A mood lifted by the time I wore out the needle on the turntable that day. My immediate favourites were Til The Cops Come Knockin' and Lonely's The Only Company; I could identify with the vague longing and perhaps sense of obsession — young adults. Lots of things were resolved to the sounds of the album in the next few months. For one I decided to buy a cd player, that I deserved to have more than that gray room, that — well, lots of things you know.

maxwell urban hang suite

I returned to the store a few days later to buy a cd copy and gave my report to the guy. We listened and talked our way through the album, talked music like those who share our affliction do - for example comparing Maxwell to that other guy, D'Angelo, who seemed hungrier. If they would be MJ and Prince in coming years, we wondered who would be their Madonna. The guy was an R&B traditionalist and kept trying to get me to buy that Brian McKnight album - I kept demurring, that thrift thing. Then he played New Moon Daughter for me and I kicked myself for having been so out of touch that I'd missed out on the release of a new Cassandra Wilson album. I decided to try to do a guest show at WHRB, to get back into things.


There I was about to simply review the concert I attended last night and all of these things came out.

Music is like that. It's a social thing, conveying a sense of time, of place and of comfort. It triggers memories. It's that thing we call soul. I could go on about the vicissitudes of that year, about Boston, about friends and family, about jobs, the travails of finding an apartment and more. All those things came flashing back. I won't though. I'll simply note an album that was part of that year's soundtrack, a mood marker. And I'll hold on to that detail: the album cost $3.13 after tax.


So yes, The Cousin and I were warmed by Maxwell and his 10 piece band last night at the Paramount in Oakland. Escapism from the work week for 3,000 or so souls. It was well worth it. It was, to recycle that phrase I've become fond of, a comfort suite.

I'll leave the detailed reviews to others. It was great show like all others in this tour. The horn section gave an organic feel, the guitars and bass were just right, the percussion was on point, the background vocalist gave nice accents. Briefly stated, the band is tight. When you think about Maxwell, don't just think of the man, the band is as important as the front man. All of them are enjoying the comeback and the overwhelming love from the audiences.

maxwell showman

They played most of the favourites from his songbook and previewed a few new songs. His falsetto is still as pure as ever, he can do the Sam Cooke thing when he wants, or the Prince thing, or the Al Green thing, or the Marvin Gaye circa 1974 thing. There's the dancing and showmanship ala James Brown, he's no longer as skinny obviously, but he still gets down. If he was Mr Mellow Smooth in the past, there's now an additional edge to the performance and to the sound. There's now some experiential blues in his brand of soul. He still thinks in terms of suites, of capturing a mood, and will run with that feeling through its course.

Most of all there's the warm feeling in the music - it's like that groundswell that builds when Maze featuring Frankie Beverly come onstage in D.C.. It's in the crowd too - everyone knows the lyrics and wants to be seduced anew. By the time he got to covering Al Green's Simply Beautiful, he was simply making his intentions explicit. Call it melodious melodies or sensual soul - to pick titles of mix tapes I've made featuring Maxwell.


The ladies in the audience were all captivated. The panties were thrown on stage. The atmosphere was headier than a Robin Thicke concert. As expected, The Cousin paid me no mind throughout the concert, absorbed as she was in the aura like many others in the audience. I laughed at some of the scandalous things that those two women in front were screaming. It wasn't just nostalgia however, the music was truly that good. This Woman's Work made me tear up, Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder) hit the soul spot. Sumthin' Sumthin' got us dancing. Lifetime made us sigh. What more could you want on a Tuesday night?

Seven years is a long time out of the limelight but brother man delivered the goods. He's back. The demons are conquered. It was worth it. There'll be more suites in the near future and everyone is on notice that he'll be setting the bar high for all to follow. I'm expecting the same elation when that other guy finally resurfaces but for now, pound for pound, Maxwell's a heavyweight soul champion.

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orchid lover said...

Love the paired down sixties vibe, from the photos. Wish I could have been there! - the wife.

Unknown said...

Hello, I was searching for reviews of this Maxwell concert, and found your blog. I think that 1 of the ladies screaming scandalous sexy things at Maxwell was 1 of my friends because we were all in the front row. Was she wearing a blue poncho with locks in her hair? Hahaha. We are big Maxwell fans, if you can't tell, we were sitting in the front. But yeah, wasn't it an amazing experience?!?

-new oakland friend

Unknown said...

Koranteng I've been reading your marvelous writings for years. We have much in common, in musical and literary tastes and even our line of work. I just wanted to thank you and encourage you to keep it up!

Good on ye

P.S. Checking out Byrd now, props!

Koranteng said...

A head nod right back at you. I'm slowly working my way back to the web.