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Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisThis summer's extensive Ravinia Festival scored yet another A-lister in the form of Maxwell, whose sensual neo-soul served as the ideal supplement to Chicagoland's summertime staple. The debonair crooner's inaugural appearance was part of his "Summer Solstice Tour," which found the 41-year-old singer/songwriter sizzling on an unseasonably chilly night, accompanied by the seven member Sexual Chocolate band, a video wall projecting synchronized scenes and two side screens that helped the ladies at the top of the sold out lawn get a closer look at the sex symbol.
Though Maxwell possesses the vocal chops and enough sophisticated arrangements for the fellas to enjoy, his bedroom-ready R&B definitely played up the suave persona, much to the delight of the predominantly female crowd. In that regard, he could be considered a classier offspring of R. Kelly or a precursor to John Legend (minus the piano playing), but make no mistake, this multi-million album seller's carved out a niche of his own, holding out the gentlest of notes and taking his sweet time getting to each climatic chorus throughout 90 sultry minutes.
After opening with the rhythmic shuffles of "Sumthin' Sumthin,'" Maxwell intermixed more from that initial ascent through his latest long player "BLACKsummers'night" (Columbia), which bowed in 2009 after an eight year hiatus. The newer "Bad Habits" found him locking right back into a contemporary musical mindset, while his complete ownership of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" was anchored around a jaw-dropping falsetto that's downright ageless.
As a whole, the retrospective evening suggested this somewhat under the radar troubadour should consider recording and touring more often, who despite debuting nearly two decades ago, has released just four studio projects. In fact, the only advantage to having a succinct back catalogue was the fact that Maxwell could address all his major chart-toppers and even improvise on the arrangements as the mood dictated.
"Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" was a true marvel as the band leader commanded silence aside from the drums and bass with a mere moment's notice, then just as spontaneously instructed the other instruments to resume their portion of the groove. The life-affirming "Pretty Wings" also took flight as an extended slow jam, suggesting that Maxwell's more than simply eye-candy, but also quite an accomplished artist who appeared genuinely touched by the warm reception from his fiercely loyal following.
Fans of Maxwell may also be interested in some of Ravinia's upcoming shows, including blues great Buddy Guy and R&B icon Mavis Staples on Tuesday, August 19, soul sirens Joss Stone and Lisa Fischer on Wednesday, September 10 and local musical melting pot Poi Dog Pondering on Friday, September 12. For additional details, visit www.ravinia.org.
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