Back in 2009, when Maxwell’s critically acclaimed BLACKsummer’snight marked the singer’s return following an eight-year hiatus from the music industry and served notice that he remained a stunningly singular creative force, it seemed reasonable to expect that the next installment of a planned trilogy would be forthcoming shortly. Well, it took seven years before the release of blackSUMMER’snight—an eternity in pop music terms—but, judging by the rapturous reception the singer received from a nearly sold-out Massey Hall on Tuesday night, absence has only made the hearts of his fans grow fonder.
After regular tour opener Ro James was a disappointing no-show, Maxwell’s eight-piece band—in what’s becoming a bit of a trend in 2016—took the stage to a Prince song (it was “Let’s Go Crazy” for the Dixie Chicks a few weeks ago, “Kiss” on Tuesday) and settled into a luxurious, steady groove. A dapper Maxwell—fitted grey suit, slim grey tie, sunglasses—soon joined them, and it immediately became abundantly clear that the Brooklyn native had not lost one step since his last Toronto visit at the same venue in 2014, his impressive falsetto as fluid, supple and light as ever on the opening medley of “Dancewitme” and “Everwanting: To Want You to Want.”
Maxwell quickly noted that this was going to be an intimate show, a chance to have some fun with those fans who’d stood by him for the better part of two decades—and the song choices mostly reflected this. While the just-released blackSUMMER’snight was only represented by two songs—the delicate, atmospheric soul of “Hostage” and “Lake By the Ocean,” its exceptional first single—much of the 90-minute set was spent revisiting highlights from the singer’s first four LPs and offered plenty of nods to the singer’s twenty years in music. Before “Bad Habits,” which boasted a horn arrangement that was somehow even livelier than on the excellent studio recording, Maxwell thanked the audience “for waiting for seven years.” Then, the singer turned “Love You” into a self-referential plea to his fans to not forget him despite his long absences. Maxwell’s definitive reinvention of “This Woman’s Work” opened with an excerpt from Kate Bush’s original and featured the singer standing in a lone spotlight, his gorgeous, otherworldly vocal accompanied only by a smattering of keyboards. It remains a breathtaking, moving showstopper, and one that brought the audience to their feet for the first of several standing ovations on the night.
From that point on, Maxwell took the audience from the bedroom (“Sumthin’ Sumthin’,” prefaced by a snippet from “…Til the Cops Come Knockin'”) to his church (R. Kelly-penned slow jam “Fortunate,” which included a shoutout to Prince, closed with a series of solos and the singer calling out, “Let the church say ‘amen’!”) and places in between (“Ascension [Don’t Even Wonder]”). Now well into his 40s, Maxwell seems thoroughly at ease on stage, unafraid to lose himself in the music—closing his eyes and bopping his head to an instrumental break on “Hostage,” swaying unselfconsciouly during Hod David’s guitar solo on “NoOne”—or to unleash some playfully corny dance moves and pantomime the chorus during “Lake By the Ocean.” Adding to the loose, relaxed vibe of the evening, Maxwell brought out a cake and serenaded bass player Derrick Hodge on his birthday—and then brought out another one before closer “Pretty Wings” to give to a woman in the front row who was also celebrating her birthday!
Early in the set, Maxwell gave a nod to the 6’s celebrated superstar by announcing that “Drake told me that I could borrow his city for about an hour and a half.” No one in the audience would have objected if he had kept us a little longer.
Dancewithme/Everwanting: To Want You to Want
This Woman’s Work
Lake By the Ocean
…Til the Cops Come Knocking’ (snippet)/Sumthin’ Sumthin’
Get to Know Ya
Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)