The legendary Ms. Lauryn Hill graced First Avenue last night with a full band in tow and an incredible career-spanning set. Playing for over two hours, she divided her set into sections that covered material from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
, her Unplugged
acoustic album, Fugees classics, and a whole portion devoted to Bob Marley. She was a sight to behold, and put on one of the best shows of the year so far.
Slideshow: Ms. Lauryn Hill sells out First Avenue
About an hour after doors opened a DJ took to the stage to start spinning a variety of records, from reggae standards, to rap throwbacks from DMX and Jay-Z, to various funk, soul, and R&B. It was a good way to introduce Lauryn's set, which maintained the same hybridized sense of genre exploration. Soon the band took stage and the mighty Ms. Hill jumped into the first of what would be several Bob Marley covers, a rousing rendition of "Soul Rebel" that seamlessly transformed into a reggae-infused version of "Killing Me Softly."
Looking stunning in a flowing black dress and a fantastically large hat, Lauryn stood radiant and confident, dancing and making subtle conducting gestures to the guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and trio of back-up singers. Her role as bandleader could be heard throughout the set, as nearly every song went through multiple genre and tempo changes without missing a beat. As the band flipped sections around, Lauryn pushed her presence forward and gave a very strong vocal performance.
Songs from Miseducation sounded amazing with the full band presence, who didn't simply amplify the album's production but really progressed songs in entirely new directions. The swing of a song would switch drastically in the middle, but not once did Ms. Hill falter in terms of where her voice sat in the mix. She hit every note and every beat exactly where it should be, even if it required rapping verses at what felt like twice the speed after the song's change-up.
She displayed incredible vocal chops across the board, nailing tongue-twister rhymes better than nearly anyone I've seen live and hitting harmonies with real power. Little details like blocking how close she should be to the microphone to shifting subtly from singing to rap showed just how talented Lauryn Hill is on multiple fronts.
After a brief break she returned to the stage for the acoustic portion, performing some of her material from the famed MTV Unplugged album, which gave the audience the opportunity to hear her voice more upfront. Strumming an acoustic guitar and belting some astounding melodies, she brought the house to a more downtempo level of excitement, only to explode forth shortly after with a throwback set of Fugees material. The songs boomed as big as the originals but were teased-out and extended at portions to almost create a whole new pieces.
Fading into a stripped-down section towards the close of "How Many Mics," the repeated rapidfire chorus went from a false ending to a gigantic crescendo, letting the band explode underneath the four-part harmonized raps. She brought back "Killing Me Softly," which sat closer to the torchlight Fugees version but also contained new twists. Finally, she led her band in a series of Bob Marley covers and added a new spin there as well.
Every song on the bill seemed to be someone's favorite, and the audience was enthralled. Familiar tunes took on new life and both played to people's nostalgias and their desire for something fresh and original. Closing with mega-hit "Doo-Wop (That Thing)," she went out on a very big note with a huge second verse that mingled the hip-hop, doo-wop, reggae, rock, and soul elements into an astounding singular sound. It was an amazing feeling to be part of last night's crowd and see Ms. Lauryn Hill breathe life into every facet of her music. This will stand as an unforgettable show.
Personal Bias: I'm certainly not alone in this but I've long considered Miseducation among the best hip-hop albums of all time.
Random Notebook Dump: Did I see glow-in-the-dark bass strings at one point or was that a lighting illusion?
Overheard In The Crowd: "She's gorgeous, she looks exactly the same!"
The Crowd: Ecstatic, packed in, and in awe.
Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)
Killing Me Softly
Everything Is Everything
Adam Lives In Theory
Just Like Water
Turn Your Lights Down Low
How Many Mics
Ready Or Not
Killing Me Softly Reprise
Bob Marley covers
Satisfy My Soul
Is This Love
Could You Be Loved
Nothing Even Matters (acapella)
Doo-Wop (That Thing)