Maxwell a soulful success


September 30, 2001



Maxwell is the kind of man that women love--a fresh-faced young ''hottie'' who'll sing sweet songs of love while rubbing their backs, sprinkling rose petals on their beds, painting their toenails, and feeding them Cap'n Crunch cereal.

The 28-year-old Brooklyn-born soul man promised all of that and more to the enthusiastic female fans who filled the Arie Crown Theatre on Friday night for the first of two sold-out shows. And he did it with such guileless goodwill and exuberant enthusiasm that even their boyfriends wanted to hug him by the end of the hourlong set.

Touring in support of his third album, ''Now,'' Maxwell could not match the intensity, the artistry, or the odd mix of raw sexuality and searching spirituality represented by D'Angelo, the other leading male star of neo-soul or natural R & B, the movement that is heralding a return to sweaty live instrumentation, deeper emotions and a lack of showbiz superficiality.

But by drawing inspiration from Prince in his retro-soul mode (especially when he breaks out his falsetto), and trusting on the charms of a big smile, a tight 11-piece band (including some kicking horns) and an honest sensuality devoid of bull or overabundant machismo, Maxwell is clearly carving a niche of his own in one of the most energizing developments in African-American music since the dawn of hip-hop.

Slow jams and tender ballads mixed with slightly more up-tempo grooves through the course of the evening as the singer mused on the fleeting nature of love and the precious gift of life. Events in his hometown are clearly weighing heavily on him--he asked the audience to acknowledge the ''departed souls'' with a long moment of silence--but he did not overplay that card as some performers have in the wake of Sept. 11.

A recent article on explored a New York phenomenon that the writer called ''terror sex''--the especially ardent coupling of loved ones who are happy to celebrate being alive and in each other's arms after the horror of recent days. Whether that was on Maxwell's mind, he was happy to oblige his fans by helping to get their motors running with steamy readings of songs such as ''Get to Know Ya'' and ''For Lovers Only.''

If Maxwell so far lacks the ability of Prince, Marvin Gaye or D'Angelo to bring his sexy songs into the realm of the transcendent and spiritual, his boy-next-door naturalness is refreshingly devoid of the crassness of so many modern-day players and thugs. And after only five years on the scene, he is smoothly grooving his way toward becoming one of the greats.

Subbing as opener on the Chicago stops of the tour was Philadelphia singer Jaguar Wright, yet another promising newcomer who is hoping to follow in the wake of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Macy Gray. (She replaced Alicia Keys, who opted to do her own headlining show at the Chicago Theatre last Monday.)

The highlight of a short but potent set: a bravura harmony vocal workout with her two backing singers on ''Leaving On A Jet Plane.''