The results of Tuesday's presidential election were disappointing to many, and it didn't take long for Maxwell to allude to the country's new political reality during his show with Mary J. Blige at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night (Nov. 10). "I'm just waiting for Michelle Obama to run for president in four years," he told the crowd. "Until then, let's go away to some place beautiful."
During the New York stop of the King and Queen of Hearts tour, Maxwell and Blige had a very specific escapist destination in mind: the crackling, whiplash, vamp-heavy soul and funk of the late '70s and '80s. Both worked with sizable, aggressive bands that favored sheer impact over nuance and almost completely ignored the programmed beats common in R&B today.
This historical reverence is no surprise: when these two performers emerged from New York as R&B singers to watch in the '90s, they were each lauded for their links to the genre's past. Maxwell was frequently associated with the neo-soul movement, which was intent on resurrecting moody ghosts from the '70s; Blige's music was dubbed hip-hop soul, but it was also built around in-your-face nods to classic records. She covered Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing" on her debut album, 1992's What's The 411?, and the follow-up incorporating snippets of Marvin Gaye, Barry White, and Al Green.
This led to an interesting, time-traveling aspect to Blige's performance. Though her music, especially the early material, was originally built around samples, she was recreating all those samples live onstage at Madison Square Garden with her muscular funk ensemble. The band shredded Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves The Sunshine," which underpins Blige's "My Life," and the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long," which lends a bass line to Blige's "Mary Jane," re-introducing instrumental sizzle to what was once the work of savvy record-flipping.
Though Blige's sound has shifted with radio trends -- she embraced a crunchy, crossover-ready style in the late '90s and early '00s, as well as buzzy English soul and dance acts on 2014's The London Sessions and trap-flavored drums on her new single "Thick Of It" - her set list favored hits that were easily adaptable as live funk. (No "Be Without You," no "Mr. Wrong," not much recent material.) She did perform "Thick Of It," burying the programming beneath Mint Condition-caliber drum breaks. During one of her most memorable moments, she reimagined 2011's "Don't Mind" as a feisty, unhurried ballad, volleying back and forth with her three superlative backup singers.
Blige's anchor was her drummer and musical director, Rex Hardy, who found shelter behind a forest of cymbals, lashing his kit with thunderous intensity. This is required for a Blige performance, which unrolls as a series of histrionic peaks: the set opened with a backdrop of ominous clouds and cracking thunder -- there's nothing quiet about this storm -- and a series of headlines about obstacles Blige has faced, including lawsuits and divorce. When the singer hit the stage in sunglasses, leather, and fur, fireworks erupted beside her.
But she didn't need the help: she jumped up and down in blue, hi-heeled boots, slammed her thigh repeatedly for emphasis, roared like Betty Davis, and brought out rapper Method Man to perform their iconic duet "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By." Even her dancing, which channeled the youthful joy of her early singles, was a show of strength, earning fevered audience chants of "Go Mary!"
There was less of this sort of exuberance during Maxwell's set: no thunder, no fireworks. While Blige smashes through the obstacles in her way, enacting crowd catharsis ("people are just gonna learn to take me as I am, or have nothing at all," she said at one point), Maxwell is more interested in displaying suave cool. He's a lanky, gliding presence on stage, decked out in a three-piece suit, and his falsetto is remarkable, unflappable even on the verge of evaporation.
But he also used his vicious, swinging band to connect to a long lineage of R&B singers. His movements on stage show how closely he's studied soul masters like Al Green: exacting footwork, jabbing hand gestures to signal activity from the band, timely, exaggerated hip thrusts. In between his cross-catalog capers -- 1996's "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)," 2009's "Pretty Wings," 1999's vibrant "Fortunate" and this year's "Lake By The Ocean" - Maxwell invoked Green and James Brown, and spoke about his love for Harry Belafonte, who apparently attended the show. He also performed a snippet of Prince's "Adore" and sang "This Woman's Work," a version of a Kate Bush tune that appeared on his 2001 album Now, while clips of Prince flashed on screen behind him.
These soon gave way to footage of police brutality and peaceful protesters. Blige mostly shied away from topical allusions: "We are in a place where have to fight for our rights, we can't let the bullshit stop us," she said before singing "No More Drama." But Maxwell praised the Black Lives Matter movement on a number of occasions, and he pleaded for a sense of unity that seems entirely absent from a country ruled by bitter invective. "We all come the same way," he noted. "And we all go the same way."
These heartwarming themes can be difficult to square with reality. Still, Maxwell returned to an uplifting message as he closed the night. (Anyone hoping for a duet between Maxwell and Blige left the arena disappointed.) "Love is the only way we will stop any injustice," he told the crowd. "Let's keep love alive, and things will get better."