Written by Sason Bishope Parry & Behnam Vadi
San Francisco – August 5, 2023 CA the USA
Going to see the SF Symphony is always a wonderful experience. So, of course, when 90’s Grammy award-winning R&B superstar MAXWELL announced that he would be doing a special symphony concert, we had to be there. Dubbed the Marvin Gaye of the 90s, Maxwell’s smooth crooning vocals have been exciting for many female audiences for decades. Anyone familiar with his music knows it’s impossible not to be drawn in by his soft falsetto and charming personality. Maxwell has been touring the Bay Area since he dropped his debut critically acclaimed classic, “Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite,” in 1996, which made him a global soul singing superstar. However, playing with the SF Symphony, arguably the country’s best orchestra, was something new and a first even for Maxwell.
“The San Francisco Symphony orchestra is badass. I’ve seen all the stuff. I’ve watched clips. And I’m very excited to share the space. I love getting down and dirty with the original versions [of my songs] …But when you hear it in an orchestral way, it’s so beautiful. It feels so angelic,” says Maxwell.
Although it was Maxwell’s first performance with the SF Symphony, he is familiar with playing with a big orchestra. In 2019 he played four sold-out shows with the National Symphony Orchestra at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Performing two capacity-filled nights at Davies Hall showed that the singer was still in high demand. We had heard great things about the first night, so the anticipation was high for night two. We arrived about an hour early, assuming we would stroll right in and avoid the rush, but others had the same idea as the line was already down the street. Once we got inside, we noticed what the bottleneck was all about. Maxwell had requested that all cell phones, including cell watches, be placed in a locked bag. This was the first time we had experienced this at the SF Symphony, and we wondered what would happen in the event of an emergency. But to put things in perspective, we heard Beyonce did the same thing at her concerts, sometimes drawing 80,000 fans!
“We get to kind of shut the world off for a second and appreciate the magnitude of what [we]’re hearing,” Maxwell says of the decision. “Because I’m falling over inside myself, trying to keep it together because I’m so stunned by the harps and the conviction with which it’s played. It’s something to behold. So, I can’t wait. I’ve been practising.”
Once we locked up our phones, we proceeded to the reception area, started people-watching, and enjoyed the fantastic, good vibes. What we immediately realized was the mixture of fans roaming around, all smiling, and the energy was infectious. Some older, probably fans since the 90s and newbies might have gotten turned on to the angelic crooner by their parents or social media. The crowd was also very fashionable and dressed to the T and probably one of the best-dressed and unique crowds we’d seen at the Symphony. A great way to kick off what we knew would be an epic and memorable night of music.
We hung out briefly before the performance bell rang and then proceeded to our seats in the orchestra section. The orchestra was already on stage, and we immediately noticed many musical additions, including two electric guitar players and a pianist, along with the usual players. The drummer was placed upfront rather than in the back. Fans were smiling everywhere and rose to their feet as conductor Steven Reineke took the stage with grace and confidence. Reineke, a veteran conductor was also the conductor for Maxwell’s shows at the Kennedy Center, so they must have bonded well. He wasted no time and quickly introduced the star of the night, Maxwell, to a roar of applause and a standing ovation. Maxwell walked out, looking handsome with a head wrap and his signature sunglasses. He smiled, the crowd erupted, and he went straight into his first song, “Bad Habits,” with his angelic falsetto, backed by a beautiful singer who accompanied his every note. Unfortunately, technical difficulties did happen, and Maxwell’s mic went out a few times. Not missing a beat and being a seasoned showman, he just smiled at the audience; Steven Reineke kept the orchestra playing as someone from the side brought Maxwell a new mic. As always, the show must go on!
All we can say is wow! The stage was graced by triumphant musical brilliance, so much that Maxwell couldn’t help but stop between breakdowns and take in the magnificence of the musicians accompanying him. Each brought their unique artistry to the forefront, weaving a tapestry of sonic splendour that captivated the audience.
After the first few songs, Maxwell praised the audience and thanked them for all the years of supporting his music. He also praised the SF Symphony multiple times, saying that he had never played with so much talent in his entire life. He talked about how the initial ideas for his debut album were made on an Apple computer and a four-track. So, to see his songs come to such heights with an entire orchestra was a treat for him and all of us. The xylophonist’s performance was nothing short of a marvel. His fingers seemed to dance effortlessly across the keys, conjuring a cascade of melodies that vibrantly sparked every Maxwell song. The xylophone’s distinct timbre added an enchanting layer to the compositions, drawing listeners into its intricate melodies and captivating rhythms.
“I’m in so much awe and blessed tonight to be surrounded by so much excellence. These musicians put in so much time to be able to play at this level of magnificence, and I’m so humbled that I have been allowed to be here tonight with them and all of you. Thank you with all my heart”, shouted Maxwell multiple times.
No intermission was scheduled for the evening as Maxwell played straight through from beginning to end. His 12-song set consisted of all his classics, many of which were rein visioned with the SF orchestra. One of the highlights of the evening came when he performed his hit, “Gravity.” The orchestra was phenomenal and almost tribal, drawing out musical parts as Maxwell’s gifted vocals abilities were drawn out, holding long notes that gelled with the music. Maxwell is not only a great singer, but he’s a fantastic performer who knows how to keep the crowd engaged. Equally captivating was the percussionist, whose skilful manipulation of various instruments brought a rich and diverse palette of rhythms to the forefront. His performance showcased the incredible versatility of percussion, from thunderous beats reverberating through the hall to delicate and intricate patterns that lent depth to the concert/performance.
When he kicked into his classic “Sumthin Sumthin,” the crowd was on their feet. Maxwell shouted to fans to sing along, get up, and dance, which most did on cue. Davie’s Hall became an exciting R&B party of the highest good vibe magnitude. His lovely ballad, “Whenever, Whenever,” had the females screaming, and he just milked every second of it, making sexy moves and teasing fans with his vocal athletics. Maxwell was a true gentleman shouting out that all were welcome, females with their husbands, men with their husbands, first-time daters, and all the single women. He said, everyone is welcome tonight, and the crowd just ate it up. Another fan favourite, “Til The Cops Come Knockin’,” got fans on their feet again, slow dancing and singing along. One of the biggest highlights was “Ascension,” arguably Maxwell’s most significant career hit. The entire crowd erupted, and the whole place was on their feet. There wasn’t one person singing as fans sang harmoniously to the catchy chorus. Maxwell and Reineke must have noticed that this song struck a chord and dragged the ending out for multiple chorus rounds, allowing the crowd to participate. At the same time, the orchestra brought the entire house down! Their direction was a masterclass in precision and emotion, guiding the performers with a steady hand and imbuing the music with unity and purpose. The conductor’s connection with the musicians was palpable, resulting in a harmonious collaboration that elevated the crowd. It was one of the most exciting and crowd-involved moments we had ever witnessed at the symphony.
Maxwell ended the night with an encore of one of his most beautiful songs, “Pretty Wings,” that commanded another crowd singalong. The song was once again re-envisioned with the orchestra and honestly could have been recorded and re-released today as a new version. It was that good. Most people generally head to the exits before the encores of shows, especially given that there would be another bottleneck to get cell phones unlocked. However, nobody was moving as fans took in every minute until the end of Maxwell’s outstanding performance and our very own Symphony, who just killed it. The only complaint would be that the ending came too soon, and Maxwell could have easily played for another thirty minutes. It was Saturday night in San Francisco and barely 930PM, but leaving audiences wanting more is not a bad thing.
The Maxwell and San Francisco Symphony concert was a resounding reminder of the transformative power of music. Through the extraordinary talents of these performers, the audience was transported on a musical odyssey that left an indelible mark on the heart and soul. It was a night where artistry reigned supreme, and the boundaries of possibility were stretched, leaving those in attendance with a memory to cherish for years to come. Overall, it was a night to remember and probably one of the best Symphonies we had been to. Maxwell was excellent, and that was to be expected, but we felt that the synergy between the xylophonist, percussionist, and conductor transformed the concert hall into a realm of enchantment. Their collective artistry seamlessly melded tradition and innovation, creating an experience that resonated deeply with the audience. The final notes lingered in the air, met with thunderous applause that echoed the profound impact of their collaboration. I’m sure Maxwell would agree; this was a night we all will cherish!
For more info on the SF Symphony, go to: www.sfsymphony.org
For more info on MAXWELL, go to: www.musze.com