Reggae superstar Maxi Priest had three reasons to put on a lively, well-received show at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill last Wednesday night. 1) He was celebrating his 53rd birthday. 2.) He was launching the July 1st U.S. release of his latest album, “Easy To Love.” 3.) The mixed crowd of West Indian transplants, Europeans, Americans and reggae lovers was feeding of his manic energy. It was quite a night.
For years, Max Alfred “Maxi” Elliott, aka Maxi Priest, has made a stop at B.B. King’s 42nd Street club in New York City an annual event during his birthday week. That’s something he shared with the crowd while coaxing them with the hip-hop chants: “Everybody scream,” “Let me hear the ladies scream” or “Wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.” Those cheeky rants aren’t the usual call-to-actions for reggae artists, but Maxi is not the usual reggae artist. Born in Jamaica and reared in London, as the child of a Pentecostal missionary, he gained his musical influences from gospel church music, Jamaican artists such as Dennis Brown, soul singers like Marvin Gaye and British pop artists such as the Beatles. He honed his golden throat vocals at house parties, building an appreciative audience as he developed his own hybrid musical style dubbed “reggae fusion” or “lovers rock.”
As Maxi pranced across the small, intimate stage at B.B. Kings, in front of a dance floor filled with swaying bodies moving to his tunes, the culmination of his musical evolution was on view. Backed by just a keyboardist, guitarist, bass player and drummer, it felt like he had a much bigger supporting band as he sang his greatest hits, new music and some covers of standards to a very mixed age, race, culture and nationality crowd. The first couple of songs were hard to discern, as the background music was too loud. Once a technical adjustment was made, the crowd could hear his silky vocals clearly, which are as soothing, sanguine and/or rousing as they were when he first made a name for himself with his 1988 international hit “Wild World,” a modernized version of the Cat Stevens classic. Maxi purred, “Now that I’ve lost everything to you. You say you wanna start something new. And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’. Baby, I’m grieving.”
Arguably, Maxi’s 1988 debut album, simply titled “Maxi Priest,” is the ultimate British reggae album and stands the same test of time as Bob Marley’s iconic “Legend” album. At age 53, 26 years after his career began, his dreads are almost floor-length (the ladies were pulling on them all night), his face is fuller and he has over two decades of hits to sing. Like a fine wine, he’s just gotten better; like a consummate showman he’s learned how to work his audience into an alternate state of excitement and bliss.
He debuted songs off his upcoming “Easy To Love” album. The title song is already available on iTunes and has a smooth Maxi Priest feel. The newest single is “Gravity,” a cover of the John Mayer blues/pop song. “Whoa gravity, stay the hell away from me… Just keep me where the light is…” For the new release, Maxi has enlisted the help of reggae studio legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and Beres Hammond joins him on vocals for the R&B-flavored ‘Without a Woman.” In-between showcasing the new music, the soulful singer crooned a version of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” followed by “Some Guys Have All The Luck” and of course “Wild World.” “Close to You,” his 1990, #1 U.S. Billboard charting hit got the crowd bugging: “She was a Jezebel, this Brixton queen. Livin’ her life like a bad sweet dream… I just wanna be close to you.”
As the evening came to a close, Maxi turned to his band and asked them to perform familiar riffs from classic music. He teased the audience and sang snippets, asking them to sing along to: Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean…” When he found out the O’Jays lead singer Eddie Levert was in the crowd, he invited him up on stage to duet on The Temptations “My Girl” and then he launched into the O’Jays “Love Train.”
You know you are at a real reggae concert when you can feel a mellow, loving spirit enter the room and envelop you. That was always the lasting affect of a Bob Marley show, and Maxi Priest, with his soul and gospel background, is even more attuned to the spiritual side of performing. For his last song he said, “Let me say a blessing for you.” Then he sang, like it was a slow benediction in a reggae church, “Say a prayer for the world. And send all your love to all creation…”
A birthday, a new album, a room full of loving fans and music that soothed the soul… Everyone had something to sing about at Maxi Priest’s B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill concert. Everyone.
Visit NNPA Entertainment Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.