Saturday, June 5, 2010

Maxwell w/ opening act Jill Scott

Oracle Arena – Oakland, CA. June 4, 2010Maxwell performed Friday night to a large (lower bowl and floor of arena looked full) audience at Oracle Arena. I’m a fan of Maxwell’s so please understand that when reading this review. However my fandom is always overridden by my critical thoughts. There is a producer in me.

While we (wifey and I) enjoyed the show, I did think Maxwell played about two or three too many slow jams. I know, I know, Maxwell is a slow jam king. I get it. The mellow-smooth is his signature. Trust me – I am a slow jam king too. But there is always a time and a place such an occurrence. A concert on a Friday night in Oakland needs to have more upbeat moments than chill stretches. My wife actually said this, during Til the Cops Come Knockin’: “I was having a hard time not falling asleep”.

So that deficiency in funky weekend energy was my main criticism.

On stage, Maxwell deserves high praise for his showmanship. He smiles easily and appears to be having fun. He’s a dancing machine. Vocally – he is always on the right pitch – and his natural tone is wonderful to hear live. As a band-leader he runs a tight ship. During the beginning notes of "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" – someone in the band was playing something wrong and Maxwell called them out on it. I wish I knew exactly what he said but it something to the effect of a scolding “know what you are playing!”

When an artist reaches the point that he or she is playing big arenas and doing it nightly – boredom with your set is bound to creep in. The result is dangerous. This is very hard for any big venue performer to get past. As a fan, I want to hear and see Maxwell sing AND perform. I didn’t pay (with all the surcharges $304 for two tix) to hear the lady in front of me sing every lyric. Too many times, and it happened Friday night – the artists signature songs turn into campfire sing-a-longs. The artist leaves out key phrases and turns the microphone to the crowd. The fans sing a verse. I hate that. It’s cool to do that once or twice but save it for the truly “feel good” moments. A Woman’s Work – a critical and mandatory tune by Kate Bush that Maxwell covers sadly became fodder for all the bad singers around me. On a more upbeat song like Ascension – I am not bothered nearly as much by the sing-a-long tactic.

Another pitfall of boredom with the set is the band going in directions that may be refreshing to them as players but to us as audience members who know the songs – it’s like “what are they playing?” If you change a song – change it ONLY for the better. Do not change a song simply because you are bored with playing the intended arrangement. If that is the case – simply move on to another tune. I think it is okay for an artist to only have two or three songs that they kind of “have to play”. For Maxwell – I would say Ascension, Fortunate, and Pretty Wings – had to be played. But he could easily swap out about three slow jams for more upbeat material.

Speaking of the band – I was disappointed that Chris Dave was never given any freedom in the show. It seems borderline criminal to not let that cat have a solo on the drums. I always advise somewhere about three-quarters of the way through the show – to have an improvisational section of 15-20 minutes or so. This helps band members get some love and stay motivated. It also helps keep the band members from being bored. …Heck, take a page from Prince and have a ‘dance contest’ for selected audience members on stage. This also might allow some FUNK to enhance the party. 

The next nit-pick is strictly local knowledge that would save performers from a slight embarrassment when playing in Oakland. Here it is: do not shout out “San Francisco!” while playing a show in Oakland. At least do not shout SF first. Oakland is a proud city and it takes about 15 seconds to figure out (once you have visited SF and Oakland) that Oakland and San Francisco, although just a few miles apart, may as well be worlds apart when it comes to style and attitude.

Maxwell shouted “San Francisco!!!, Bay Area, Oakland” in that order. Oops.

Oracle Arena as a concert hall is less than ideal. Parking was $20. The sound in the arena was horrible. Big arenas are just hard to mix due to the reverberation of the bass in such a big space. I understand that and I anticipated that going in. At the same time – I’ve heard much better mixes in similar arenas that what I struggled to decipher Friday night.

Songs I recall being played: (not in order)

  • Sumthin, Sumthin
  • Bad Habits (horrible mix)
  • Cold
  • This Woman’s Work (slow)
  • Help Somebody
  • Stop the World (slow)
  • Reunion (slow)
  • Fistful of Tears (slow)
  • Drowndeep (snippet) (slow)
  • Get to Know Ya
  • Lifetime (slow)
  • Til the Cops Come Knockin’ (slow)
  • Ascension (first encore. Band screwed up and was scolded by Maxwell)
  • Pretty Wings (final encore) (slow)

With all the above thoughts – you may think I hated the performance. Not so. I enjoyed most of the show. The audience reaction seemed mostly positive but not overwhelmingly so. This in my opinion has to do with how Maxwell is marketed. He is sold as a masculine soul singer that in the words of opening act comic Guy Torrey “make the women wet”.

Does his sexual orientation mean anything to me as a listener? No.

The reality is that Maxwell – the performer – has decidedly feminine characteristics. I don’t think any women were wet, ... but they may have wanted to go shopping in the city with him.

Jill Scott

I knew Jill Scott was talented but after seeing her perform as a solo artist for the first time – I now understand how good her voice really is. Wow! She has power and range that must seem unfair to other female singers. It took about three or four songs before she reached the Oakland crowd but once she did – she never let us go – building a climax of her hit “Golden”.

I love to watch the way people in the audience react to a performer. It is safe to say that Jill Scott resonates with black women in particular. We watched hundreds of ladies standing and singing every word of deep album cuts in Scott’s unusually long opening act. She clearly reached into the souls of many during “The Way” and her Grammy winning “Cross my Mind”.

I’m a casual Scott fan so of course I was looking forward to hearing A Long Walk. I was disappointed by the live arrangement. Overall though, Jill Scott did herself good. She turned a casual fan like me into someone who will dig a little deeper for her music due to a strong live performance.