By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009
RICHMOND -- Wednesday afternoon. Six hours till showtime. Maxwell is lounging in the cheap seats of the Richmond Coliseum, watching his road crew assemble the stage as if it were giant, real-life game of Tetris.
Just a year ago, the resurgent superstar would have been able to attend a concert here -- even sit in this very seat -- without garnering a squeal, a smile or a second glance. But when the lights go down later in the night, a packed house will greet the singer with grown-woman shrieks usually reserved for the likes of Al Green.
Call it a comeback that no one saw coming -- including Maxwell. His latest album, "BLACKsummers'night," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart in July, officially ending a multiyear hiatus from the stage, the radio and the ever-bourgeoning blogosphere. Now the prodigiously gifted, intensely private 36-year-old is enjoying the biggest tour of his career.
"BLACKsummers'night" has sold 779,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- 55,000 of which were snatched up in Washington. The singer says the District is his strongest market -- a fact evidenced by lead single "Pretty Wings," which has taken up permanent residence on local airwaves since early summer. It's a resplendent slow jam adorned with haunting gamelan chimes -- and he'll surely be crooning it when the BLACKsummers'night Tour lands at Verizon Center on Friday night. (Remaining tickets are expected to sell out before showtime, according to a Verizon Center spokesperson.)
So where's he been? Maxwell smiles at the question and says his exile was entirely self-imposed -- an attempt to reclaim his anonymity and the regular-dude love life that went with it. He recounts his time away in fond tones and a sandpapery rasp that belies his gravity-defying falsetto.
"I think by taking that break and living a life and meeting girls who actually didn't know who I was, where I didn't have to rest on those laurels and actually had to work for it instead of just having it fall in my lap -- that actually made ["BLACKsummers'night"] appealing to the masses," he says. "It made them sort of believe me more."
It also reaffirmed the faith of older fans who had been following Maxwell since the glory days of neo-soul -- the late-'90s movement that adopted a heady, old-school ethos in hopes of vanquishing the bling-encrusted hip-hop of the day.
Some of neo-soul's biggest stars were venerated too fast, too soon, and disappeared into the shadows of their own success. After watching Lauryn Hill and D'Angelo derail, fans wondered if Maxwell's premature exit was something beyond his control.
"I think people just assumed something had to be wrong," he says. "'Why wouldn't he want to be famous?'"
"Fame . . . it kind of kills the humanity and the humility of music for some reason," he says. "You're like this product all of a sudden and you have to stay in this Superman costume with people telling you that if you cut your hair, your career is over."
The iconic, blown-out Afro that he's referring to wasn't the only thing that made Maxwell famous -- but it helped. He first emerged in 1996 with "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" -- a stunning debut album that would eventually go double platinum. His reputation grew through 1998's "Embrya" and 2001's "Now," and his myth solidified when he vanished soon after. When the world finally tugged him back toward music, he heard the call coming from the speakers of a drug store.
"I'd be going into Duane Reade to get, like, Palmer's Cocoa Butter or get my girl tampons or whatever, and there's some song playing that I wrote five years ago," says Maxwell, remembering the little moments that eventually motivated him to start writing again.
By 2008, he had started work on a trio of albums that would share the title "BLACKSUMMERS'NIGHT." (The gospel-centric "BlackSUMMERS'-night" lands in 2010; a quiet-storming "Blacksummers'-NIGHT" is promised in 2011.)
When the first installment dropped in July, it felt sly and subversive, boasting a live band with a delicate touch. The recording has all the hallmarks of a throwback soul album: hot horns, skittery drums, bass lines that lurk before they pounce. But beneath that vintage facade lies an ocean of sonic detail that doesn't really sound like a product of its time -- or any before it.
Maxwell is quick to cite the unexpected influence of indie artists Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes. "It's funny how much more rock I listen to," he says. "R&B and soul -- it's so computerized now. . . . I knew that 'BLACKsummers'night' needed to sound live. That was the only way it was gonna sound different to people on the radio."
Now, headlining bigger venues than ever before, the singer faces the challenge of delivering that sound and all its nuances to the deepest nosebleeds.
"I want everyone," he says, tracing a crazy shape in the air with his index finger. "I want them to all to know that I feel them."
In Richmond on Wednesday night, they certainly felt him. The singer took the stage in a crisply tailored suit straight out of Motown and strutted down a Y-shaped runway, women grasping at his shiny black loafers.
The performance pushed two hours and included the ever-charming "Sumthin' Sumthin'," a cover of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful," the famously lithe version of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" and a sublime finale of "Pretty Wings."
Soaring, roaring and panting in all the right places, his delivery put him on the doorstep of a pantheon inhabited by Marvin Gaye and Prince -- those superhuman singers who protect their incredible gifts with a fierce sense of privacy.
The balance hasn't been lost on Maxwell. "All of the greats -- there was something about them. And you knew just enough, and hopefully it just circulates around the music," he says. "Now, it's so difficult to have mystique."
He shakes his head, purses his lips, soaks up the fan's-eye-view before the final pieces of the stage lock into place.
"I'm one of these people -- I don't wanna know how the magic trick is done."