If you’re a soul singer in 2016, it helps to have both silk and sandpaper in your throat. It gives you options. Float above life’s cruelty, or scratch your way through it. Maxwell and Mary J. Blige proved this idea at Verizon Center on Sunday night, gliding and roaring through their respective songbooks, both of which now span more than two decades. For an old-school revue, it felt strangely current, probably because this year has been crueler than most.
Blige — who took the stage exactly 35 hours before polls would open in the District for the most fraught presidential election in living memory — didn’t address the tension of this stressed-out American moment directly, but her voice often sounded as if it had survived far worse. Her most commanding songs doubled as tutorials on perseverance in the face of incalculable pain, and even her brightest melodies seemed bruised.
Which meant that the sweet yearning of 1992’s “Real Love” (“I’m searching for a real love”) became a disgruntled demand, while the wistfulness of 1994’s “Be Happy” (“All I really want is to be happy”) felt impatient and, eventually, fed-up. But as ornery as Blige might have sounded up there, this was mastery. Nearly 25 years into her career, her heartsickness has become a chronic condition, and she’s twisting the emotional arc of her songbook accordingly.
Her opening set reached its boiling point with “Not Gon’ Cry,” the singer’s mouth bent in a frown as she shattered a line from the refrain — “You’re not worth my tears ” — into dozens of anguished little syllables. At times, her vocalizations became so feral, they resembled involuntary moans of pain. But true to the song, Blige didn’t spill any teardrops, even though she seemed to have left the stage coated with sweat and blood.
Compared with Blige’s tormented growls, the cool-sweet falsetto of Maxwell’s headlining set felt like sorbet for dinner and, in some ways, like an act of mercy. With his recent single “Lake by the Ocean,” the neo-soul veteran described love as a drippy, trippy water world, and the higher he sang, the lighter the proceedings felt.
But he tethered those high notes to the ground during a deliciously airy cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” during which video footage of Black Lives Matter protesters flashed on the giant video screen behind him. When it was over, he raised his fist to the rafters, then dedicated the song to Prince, Muhammad Ali, David Bowie and the presidency of Barack Obama. “Tomorrow, we have to vote, y’all,” Maxwell declared, before correcting himself. “Or maybe it’s the next day. But make sure you vote!”
It’s tough to say whether the man’s internal calendar was momentarily scrambled by life on the road or simply by life in America. This has been an disorienting year by just about any measure. But on Sunday night, Maxwell clearly understood that soul music is a balm — and that he and Blige still have some heavy lifting ahead of them. After all of the votes are cast and counted, this country will have plenty of healing to do.