Back in 1998 when Maxwell released Embrya, a follow-up to seminal debut Urban Hang Suite, the famously suave purveyor of sophisticated and mature R&B (casually referred to as “Grown Folk Music”) was met with piles of critical backlash. Although the album was a success, reaching platinum status and earning the Brooklyn artist a Grammy nod, many music writers at the time felt that the sophomore slump was heavy with this one, some even going so far as to describe the album as “unfocused and pretentious” (as written by Arion Berger for The Rolling Stone Album Guide).
Granted, the collection of oddly named tracks was a stark and largely experimental departure from the sultry soul grooves of Urban Hang Suite, diving head first into thick basslines and broken rhythms, tackling its predecessors throughlines of love and sexuality from a decidedly eccentric angle, one which sat very well with alternative crowds but seemed to disappoint devoted fans who expected a continuation of Maxwell’s silky smooth soul. It was basically R&B’s Kid A moment; a comparison even more apt given that now when people look back on Embrya, it is with fondness and respect. Listen to tacks like the ambitious “Everwanting: To Want You to Want” and “Matrimony: Maybe You” and just try to resist their charms. Look up more recent reflective reviews and mostly all of them are glowing.
You could say that Maxwell was ahead of his time, and you’d most certainly be right. That was his intention all along.
“[Back then] I wanted to write music that I could do when I was 45. And now I’m 45, so this is for you,” Maxwell told the adoring crowd at Las Vegas’ Pearl Concert Theatre, shaping his current “50 Intimate Nights Live” tour into the legendary Palms Casino Resort venue with the kind of elegance and assuredness one would expect from someone who has given the world some of R&B’s greatest and most alluring records.
Touring as part of the 20th anniversary of Embrya, Maxwell and his reputable band popped by the entertainment capital of the world to give the city one hell of a savvy showcase of R&B past and present, updating his timeless hits with a few instrumental twists and – most entertaining – some raunchy vocal improvisations that genuinely elevated already perfect tracks like the smokey “Til the Cops Come Knockin'”.
After some incredible, albeit short, support from Marsha Ambrosius, Maxwell occupied the stage in a swish looking two-piece, standing tall against a glowing globe and a screen that would occasionally interlude with past interviews and laments on the singer’s long career. This was very much a retrospective – a romantic reflection of Maxwell and the many shades of R&B that have been sewn through his body of work, glued together by a very talented ensemble which included the twinkling keys of Travis Sayles and the sweet vocals of LaTina Webb, the latter making her only appearance during the encore where she joined Maxwell for a gorgeous duet of “Whenever, Whatever, Whenever”.
There was no build-up to any epic finale, nor the typical pizzazz often associated with Las Vegas concerts; it was simply just Maxwell seducing a capacity crowd with classic after classic, hit after hit, starting with one of his most treasured, “Pretty Wings”, and flowing fluidly with tracks taken mostly from Urban Hang Suite, Now, and of course Embrya. Whether it was “Bad Habits” milked for all the oozing sex appeal it has, “Fortunate” lifted with a Prince cover (“Do Me”) or even “Lake by the Ocean” given a lavish and upbeat rework, Maxwell didn’t let his set dull for a second.
We continued into the inspired “Lifetime”, set-highlight “Til’ The Cops Come Knockin'”, and “W/As My Girl”, before starting to really pick at the dense Embrya material. “Drowndeep”, “Matrimony”, and “Everwanting” were the three centrepieces, seamlessly blended into each other with a big nod to their warbling bass lines along with more organic sounding instrumentals.
New song “Shame” sounded like a great move forward for Maxwell’s distinctive sound, followed by promises of a new album. Then came the kick-off to a grand finale, spread across three fan favourites including both the slow and original versions of “Sumthin’ Sumthin”, the latter changed slightly to bring a bit of disco, and the show-stopping “Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)”, still sounding as crisp and vital as it did over two decades ago.
Too often R&B concerts devolve into indulgence and over-production by the end. Maxwell kept it stylish all the way through, which is to be expected from someone who is often considered as the benchmark for the genre.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Maxwell is currently taking his 50 Intimate Nights Live tour across North America’s most iconic theatres. Dates can be found here.
Fortunate/Do Me (Prince Cover)
Lake by the Ocean (Remix)
Til’ the Cops Come Knockin’
W/As My Girl
Matrimony: Maybe You
Everwanting: To Want You To Want
Simply Beautiful/Fistful of Tears
Stop the World
Sumthin’ Sumthin (melloesmooth)
Get to Know Ya
Ascension (Don’t Ever Wonder)
Whenever, Whatever, Wherever
The writer attended the show on 4th November 2018 at the Pearl Concert Theatre in Las Vegas.
Feature image by Denise Truscello.