Midway through his lubricious 90-minute set at the sold-out Staples Center on Saturday night, neo-soul troubadour Maxwell momentarily silenced the feminine squeals that had been raging throughout the show, and addressed the men in attendance on the intended function of his music: “I’m just the appetizer,” he told them, implying that they were responsible for providing their dates with the main course afterward. Such was the brazenly babymaking design of the night, and even if some of the man’s musicianship was lost in all the seduction, he certainly accomplished what he set out to do.
Opening with the tellingly-titled “Sumthin Sumthin,” the 37-year-old Brooklynite wasted little time establishing a mood, looking sharp in a retro gray suit that seemed to further elongate his sticklike frame. With his reedy tenor confident and his falsetto impeccable — though now colored by a pleasant hint of raspiness — the crooner effortlessly nailed songs primarily culled from last year’s “BLACKsummers’night,” his critical and commercial comeback after spending most of the past decade on hiatus.
His nine-piece band was solid though occasionally a bit bombastic on the beefier tunes (“Help Somebody,” for instance, quickly devolved into a muddy vamp). They seemed far more comfortable retreating into the background to allow their frontman to work his mojo on slow grooves like “… Till the Cops Come Knockin’,” which seemed to suit the singer’s intentions just fine.
Of course, even the most expert come-on can be derailed by too much forwardness, and Maxwell ran that risk on occasion. R. Kelly-penned hit “Fortunate” was embellished with some genuinely X-rated adlibs, and an otherwise effervescent cover of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” hit a strange snag when the singer interrupted the falsetto-driven, emotionally wrenching second verse to deeply intone, “I wanna be your baby’s daddy.”
These loverman gestures were ravenously received, of course, and it could be an interesting endeavor in micro-sociology to study spikes in the local birthrate nine months after Maxwell’s visit to a particular city.
Yet when it all came together, as it did on exquisite show-closer “Pretty Wings” — Maxwell’s finest song, and surely a first-ballot contender for the Slow-Jam Hall of Fame — it was impossible to deny the soulman’s mastery of mood, and difficult to reckon how the music world managed to get by without him for so long.
Opener Jill Scott stuck to an equally boudoir-oriented theme for her set (even decorating her stage with silhouetted go-go dancers in lightboxes), although she tempered it with an appealingly grounded persona. Blessed with a wildly expressive face, onstage ease, and a Puccini-strength soprano, Scott was all heart and little flash, a fact best illustrated by her refusal to indulge in wardrobe changes.