At Constitution Hall Friday night, Maxwell stood at the edge of the dais calling for a victim--somebody who wouldn't mind if he brought her onstage and sang a little tune. And an audience of mostly women began waving and yelling and offering themselves up.
Those in front seemed to have the best chances of being picked. Their dresses were short and tight and plunged way low. But the 26-year-old soul singer was looking to higher ground. He scanned the farthest rafters, and chose a woman with a pair of binoculars who he says was directing some "humble" energy his way.
See, Maxwell has always had a thing for the ones who sit in back. Yearning. The ones who nurse their love jones without notice or fanfare. Maybe because he can remember when he was sitting right there with them, trying to find a love of his own.
They keep bringing you flowers
But I know you prefer your roses blue
Others try to get into your trousers
Girlfriend, I was just trying to get into you.
To introduce "Get to Know Ya," Maxwell broke into that little spoken-word performance, and aisle by aisle, women shuddered in waves. Then they exhaled.
In a era where R&B has been largely dominated by hard-core "ruffnecks," or performers who aim to be pimp-daddy smooth, Maxwell is taking folks back to the temple of their familiar. Lush lyrics, original scores, "seduce me" sounds. And women especially are eating it up.
What do you call it when somebody seems to crawl into your head and sing to you from the inside out. You could call it neo-soul. You could say it's a longing for romance and sensuality. You could say it's the recognition that if you rub my mind, the rest will follow.
But for the purposes of six sold-out performances at Constitution Hall, we'll just call it the Maxwell effect.
"I'm hungry for the brother that's going to make me melt," says Ronique Jeter, 18. "I ain't never melted before in my life. Lord have mercy, if he was mine, I wouldn't do anything to mess that up."
Jeter is a Maxwell fan. Which may explain why she's holding little 10-month-old Embrya, named after Maxwell's second album. Released last summer, it is the studio follow-up to his 1996 double-platinum "Urban Hang Suite."
Jeter, who is riding Metro's Blue Line after getting off her job at an Iverson Mall shoe store, says she doesn't have ticket money for a Maxwell concert, but says she can feel his songs through the radio. With a wistfulness that belies her years, she says Maxwell's "This Woman's Work," a remake of a Kate Bush song, reminds her of a time when she was still in love with her baby's father. Says she's been hungry for songs that call out to her.
It's just the kind of thing "women who are feeling Maxwell" whisper to Jeannie Jones, who hosts WPGC-FM's late-night "Love Talk and Slow Jams."
"I think it's the energy of his music and the patience of his development that has made him not just sexy, but sensual," says Jones. "When I say sensual, I mean not just gyrating sex me up and down, but 'I want to get to know you, what's on your mind. Once I know how you feel, then I'll know what I can do to make you happy.' "
But while Jones agrees that the singer seems to have this intimate, aural, almost spiritual sway over women, don't forget about his biceps. Or hips. Or the fact that he's got the latte-colored face of a West Indian demigod. That is to say, he looks kinda good.
"When you ask somebody what makes Maxwell sexy, it's all about the kinky hair, the way he moves his body," says Jones. "It's all about sensory perception. Also, he gives me a warm feeling in my tummy."
Inside a luxury suite--wouldn't you like to know where?--Maxwell, who tries to keep his full name private to give himself some sense of a personal space, says he is still trying to digest his four-year career. He's recorded three CDs that have each sold a million or more copies. In addition to two studio albums, he also recorded a live "Unplugged" CD. He is a little unnerved by comparisons to Marvin Gaye and Prince and mindful that some have suggested that his latest release, "Embrya," is a little obtuse. He says he wants audiences to give him a chance to grow and explore. Says he is still trying to take in his success, and especially trying to wrap his mind around all the love he is getting from the ladies.
"In high school, nobody paid any attention to me. I was the nerd. I was like the weird kid walking around in the hallway," Maxwell says.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, he was devoutly Christian, the product of a West Indian mother and a Puerto Rican father, Maximilliano, who died in a plane crash when he was 3. Maxwell says his father's death sent him on an early search for religious meaning.
It was perhaps that trauma combined with getting no play from the girls that caused the singer to spend much of his youth alone with his thoughts. It is evident when he talks. Maxwell engages easily, speaking in humble spiritual terms of his career being a gift from the "blessed being." He is alternately esoteric and street-smart funny, his voice a deep raspy thing, which earned him the nickname "Froggy" in high school--a sharp contrast with his singing falsetto.
Maxwell says he identifies with the underdogs. Like the ones at his concerts who don't have the money or connections to get the good seats and have to watch him from the bat cave. He speculates that maybe his songs speak to women now because he spent so many years planning what he would say to them from afar.
I think it's from "six years of being in school and just, like, looking at Sheniqua and looking at Marisol and just seeing how they were not paying no mind to me." He says he watched the relationships of women, "who are incredibly intelligent, incredibly vast in their spirituality and just in the beauty of what they are. . . . I see how these women compromise themselves for these men and I'm just like wow. If they could only see themselves the way that I do," he says earnestly.
Maxwell, who says he's been dating a model from Puerto Rico for about nine months, talks about women in nearly mystical terms, about their creativity and the lessons they have to teach. Then he abruptly switches vibes. "Girls are so pretty, you know? They smell nice. They're soft," he says, going all dreamy, and just for a minute, you kinda see some of that high school thing he was talking about.
But while Maxwell says he appreciates the spirit of the women in the back row, some who sit a little closer have been known to direct a more earthy energy his way.
"There is a lot of revealing of body parts," he says. They've thrown panties. They "flash me a left one. Which once again I have to say, I am not mad. A brother is not upset at all. I take no offense," Maxwell says, laughing.
While the audiences at Maxwell concerts are largely female, men are feeling him, too. According to New York-based music journalist and author Kevin Powell, a lot of them just won't say it too loud. "There's been such bad music this era, when someone like a Maxwell comes along who is vulnerable, who is not talking about sex in that explicit way, it's gonna catch you."
Powell says Maxwell reminds him of a Smokey Robinson or a Donny Hathaway, and that in many ways, hip-hop has turned much of black music away from "soft" expressions of sensitivity and sensuality. "But I think it takes a hard man to say 'this is our reunion,' or 'I'm fortunate,' " Powell says. "I think that's a seriously hard-core brother."
Sometimes you don't know that you're hungry for a thing until you get it. Then you realize you were starving.
Friday night, the first of this week's four-night run (the singer returns for shows Sept. 16 and 17), the crowd was anxious. There had been long delays getting into the hall, and technical problems with the stage and seats. The fans were wound up. Ready to let Maxwell love their tension away.
Juliane Bates, 26, a hairstylist from Greenbelt, sported an extra fresh-looking French manicure on her nails and toes. Sitting fifth row, off-center, with a small bouquet of carnations, she was sharp and sexy and on a mission. "I love him, I love Maxwell, I love everything about him," Bates said. She planned to make her way to the stage and present him with the flowers. Which might have proved a little tricky given the heavy security and rows of women who could decide to stand in the way. But Bates was unimpressed.
"Oh yes," she said, "it will be done."
Across the aisle from her, Susan Eldridge, 39, of Chevy Chase, and Emmett Roberts, 41, of Mitchellville, were looking forward to the show. These days you'll find women who actually "respond to someone saying 'okay, hoochie,' or 'come here, ho,' " Roberts said. "They don't know you are supposed to be romanced and treated like a lady. . . . Maybe someone like Maxwell can bring more compassion to the forefront."
Around 10, Maxwell took the stage. He apologized for the lines and the delays. And said he was feeling the pressure of wanting to bring something special to the Washington audience. They responded with cheers, and the singer thanked the crowd for letting him feel "ridiculous love."
He told the story of a concert last month in Cincinnati where a guy who had recently separated from his wife wrote him a letter telling him she would be in the audience and asking him to dedicate her a song. Instead, Maxwell read the guy's letter.
Reached by phone, Kendra Wright said she cried when she heard Maxwell reading her husband's letter. Though the couple are still separated, she said she was overwhelmed by the gesture.
Friday night's show featured colorful lava lamps and a lush, steamy performance. And even when the singer tore his white pants doing a gyration, it was the kind of thing that his fans would be adoring on morning radio the next day. The kind of thing that had them calling for him to dispense with pants altogether.
The singer finished his performance with "Fortunate," and the crowd was on its feet, dancing in the aisles. A few feet in front of the stage, burly security men locked arms against the women who were straining to be closer to Maxwell. To catch his eye, and his message:
Never had room service all night
Never took a trip first class flight
Never had a love affair so tight
I've never felt a feeling so right
Never seen a winter so white
Never had words to recite
Never had a flame to ignite
And I never sang a song with all my might
Fortunate to have you girl
I'm so glad you're in my world.
After the show, Bates seemed satisfied. She had delivered her bouquet, and had even gotten a hug and kiss. And she was pretty sure he had been making eye contact during the finale. Singing only to her.
It's the kind of sensuality women say they've been waiting for. The kind of connection they don't mind paying $50 to feel. "And I'll be back at Monday's concert," Bates said on her way out of the auditorium.
Call it a hunger for some sexy new-school kind of soul.
Or just call it the Maxwell effect.
CAPTION: Maxwell doing "a little sumthin' " Friday night at Constitution Hall.
CAPTION: "In high school, nobody paid any attention to me. I was the nerd," says the pop-music demigod.