Just before the turn of the New Year, I went to see Lauryn Hill perform with a full band (thirteen people in all, including Hill) at a smallish club in Brooklyn. I have been debating sharing my thoughts on the experience with you, the phenomenal, discerning ‘Scapists, since it’s not altogether positive. (There’s a lot of negative “music critic types” out there, and I’ve always prided myself on not being in that circle…)
I had many, many musings cross my mind as I heard about her New York City club shows, as I purchased a ticket (something I rarely do these days; unless I really, truly, want to be present at something) right as they went on sale. It’s 2010-2011, not 1998-1999. A lot has changed since Hill was in an album cycle and in the public eye. I knew going into it, it would be roll of the dice for what kind of show we all would be privy to attending.
What I didn’t expect was for my mind to be in overdrive during the entire, nearly two-hour set.
I should back up a moment.
1998’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one of the first albums I heard in my young adulthood that matured with me. I have a few favorites from that era but albums like Reel Big Fish, Why Do They Rock So Hard? and Save Ferris, It Means Everything will always remind me of a time and place, and specific friends, even if I pick up the discs after years without hearing. Pinkerton sat under my Christmas tree in 1996, and I remember exactly how I felt when I first popped it into my Discman, and sat on the floor of my room, in awe.
Do you have albums that for the first time in your conscious thinking, don’t represent a time and place, but evolve with you as you change? For me, Miseducation is that record. I loved the songs when I first heard them as a kid in high school, and they grew with my life experiences.
Hearing “Ex-Factor” multiple times in my twenties, at the end of relationships, seared me and the experience I was living, falling out of love…or being the one with whom another had fallen out of love…as though I heard it for the first time. I could plug my experience into the song, and I felt odd comfort. The guitar licks on that track devastated; it was like she knew how the musical equivalent of pulling off a Band-Aid on delicate flesh would sound; and it was an electric riff.
“When It Hurts So Bad” was a similar experience. “And what you need, ironically, will turn out what you want to be, if you just let it,” and I suddenly realize that I needed to change a tactic in my professional work. This is the magic of music, and why it is among the MOST powerful of all the art forms. It’s cerebral, it’s emotional, it’s raw and the best songs either set a mood or make you think. I still pick up on wordplay whose true meaning I hadn’t considered to date while hearing “Everything Is Everything” and “Doo Wop (That Thing).” I wouldn’t have heard it that way at seventeen; I didn’t have the life experience to really pick up on what she was laying down.
Music reminds us that our experiences really aren’t that unique, and that we are human.
Hill’s show left me questioning artistry, money, self-righteousness, self-awareness, mental illness, and drug use.
Doors to the show were at 7:30 pm. There was no opening act. The promoter was onto a good idea to have the venue’s bar run drink specials, to get the patrons good and loose for what was about to go down. I arrived about 9pm, thinking she would start by 10pm, latest. Two and a half hours after doors opening is logic for anyone on Planet Earth except for Lauryn Hill or Sly Stone. Even for someone who is notoriously late and operating on her own plane.
At a little past eleven, her DJ came out to a crowd growing increasingly impatient. He blew through a medley of all of the East Coast hip hop legends to “warm up the crowd and Ms. Hill”. Tribe, Biggie, Busta, Wu Tang, Jay-Z. OK, sure; fun for about ten minutes. Then it became tedious, and it went on. And on. DJ had one of the more thankless jobs in Hill’s crew. About 11:45, eight others that made up her band emerged; guitarists, bassist, keys, drums. They tuned up to the DJs choices. A few of the restless natives threw bottles at the empty microphone, center stage. I can’t say I blamed them. One of the dudes on keys taped up a sign to the front of his instrument that said, “I Was On Time.”
At 12:03am, Ms. Lauryn Hill (her billing now includes “Ms.” I do not jest) deigned to grace us all with her presence, with three back up singers in tow. My ticket said Tuesday, December 28, 2010. She was operating on Wednesday, December 29, 2010.
The crowd was a mix of irritated and elated. She looked visibly upset and was greeted with an amalgamation of cheers and boos. I would love to know what caused this. Did her nanny quit? Was she waiting on a stylist to help her choose a color scheme for her muu muu? Did she need a fresh batch of drugs and her dealer was stuck on an unplowed Brooklyn street? Is she sick and waiting for a doctor to give her a steroid shot? Something happened, even if it were trivial to the rest of us; it was all over her face. The crowd was reminded by Ms. Hill that they could leave and ask for a refund, and that these things take a lot of people to put together, to make it right, and that we got what we got. There was an apology for being late in the opening rant, but it seemed false and thrown in; especially for someone as intelligent as Hill.
The set itself ran nearly two hours. There were Bob Marley covers. There were (drumroll please….not kidding) four Fugees cuts from The Score; “How Many Mics?” “Zealots,” “Ready Or Not” and “Killing Me Softly.” About 75% of the remaining crowd forgave her tardiness during The Fugees’ tracks; I don’t think anyone there expected to hear this, ever.
The songs from The Miseducation that grew up with me, seemed to grow up with Hill as well. At the end of a re-imagined version of “Ex-Factor” she improv-ed “I stayed too long, I gave too much.”
“Lost Ones” was overpowered by her (enormous) band. The soul was different; it was rushed and muddied and she sort of growled her singing parts. She growl-spoke-sang a few times during “To Zion.” Re-imagined arrangements of the songs were either a hit or a miss for sure.
Hill proffered no new material in her set. She looked like a member of The Family Stone or Parliament/Funkadelic. She stepped off stage twice during the show and the band improvised an instrumental break. I have to say, I’ve seen the jammy-est, most long-winded, epic set playing jam bands NOT do that. She played the set with a microphone in her right hand and a black washcloth-like piece of cloth in her left. It was in her hand, the entire night. She used it to wipe sweat from her face. She did this often; it did not appear to me that she has a profuse glandular problem, nor was her makeup running. I crazily found myself thinking, Oh my God, is she doing what Jimi Hendrix used to do? Put LSD in his bandana around his head so that when he sweat, the drugs would penetrate his body? Am I COMPLETELY INSANE for thinking this is a possibility? I mean, she’s not using it to blow her nose; if that were the case, I’d think she had a cold. Yep, I’m probably insane, but it’s just too odd not to bring up.
This bizarre evening in Brooklyn was the first date of a multiple city tour, and it was also recently announced she’d also be playing Coachella. While my support will always want to lie with the artist I don’t totally understand the impetus of her going on the road. Why now? I’d like to think that after the success of her critically lauded performance this past summer at Rock The Bells, that she is going to explore being a performing artist again. I wonder if the finished Fugees album will ever see the light of a release. I wonder if she has new material to start playing as the tour progresses. I wonder if the millions she likely made from The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill have run dry and she, frankly, needs the cash. I’ll likely never know, but should you be attending a show of Ms. Hill’s, be sure that you have a book to read or the company of a good friend.