We live in a pop-music era dominated by high male voices. Whether you are listening to Pharrell, Robin Thicke, or Justin Timberlake, you are constantly hearing guys who push the upper limits of their voices to create that sweet, soulful sound. Maxwell, the mono-monikered R&B titan from the 1990s who invaded the Santa Barbara Bowl last Thursday, was one of the original second-generation singers to popularize this evergreen falsetto style, and he was in fine form last week, singing high and soliciting all kinds of satisfaction and physical response from an enraptured audience. Kicking things off with two of his best known songs, “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” from his 1996 debut and “Get to Know Ya” from his 2001 album Now, Maxwell, clad in a tight gray suit and conducting his band James Brown–style from the microphone, made a strong impression on the enthusiastic fans who turned out for him.
Starting his set promptly at 8 p.m. left Maxwell plenty of time to work into his routine. About half an hour in, he made a request to the audience for some (expletive deleted) sweat “’cause we outdoors,” and three minutes later, he dropped into the splits. Introducing the steamy duet “Fire We Make” that he does with a video projection of Alicia Keys, Max let us know that “my best work is done in the dark.” By 9 o’clock, he was talking about “crazy Cali weed” and asserting, “Soul is eternal.” Fifteen minutes, later he fielded a pair of extra large panties thrown onto the stage with a gross joke. But through it all, he held command of the night’s sexy mood and his own magnificent voice.