The University of Miami
Friday, November 5, 2010
Better than: Listening to your vintage 1998 copy of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for the billionth time.
Believe it ... Ms. Lauryn Hill never disappoints her fans. She always leaves them waiting for an hour or more. Let's be real, though, this is the Empress. Why are you complaining?
Plus, all those other slams that critics, ex-fans, and other detractors have tossed at Hill since she started appearing in public again, i.e. her busted-ass voice, erratic reinterpretations of her hits, bad craziness ... It's total bullshit. Or at least that was the case last night.
Yes, it was already 11:07 p.m. when she finally made it to the mike. (A full hour and 15 minutes after opener Donnis had finished his short set.) And people had started to freak out, assuming the worst. Maybe Ms. Hill had suddenly decided she needed an emergency mani-pedi and just said, "Fuck UM"? (Do you remember Rock the Bells at Merriweather Post Pavilion?)
But no, the thing went down. And aside from tardiness, Hill didn't feed any of those nasty, increasingly legendary rumors about her cracked-out divadom. (Note: By "cracked-out," I don't actually mean she does crack.) In fact, the diva was smiley, gracious, and borderline hyperactive.
She even gave the crowd a short verbal preview of the set to come, saying: "If it's alright with you, we're gonna do some new jams. Just a little bit. Also, we're gonna do some classics. And it wouldn't be right if we didn't represent from the Gong. I know we have plenty of Bob Marley fans out here."
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Starting with an almost eight-minute version of "Lost Ones," Hill and her full band (two drummers in dress clothes, twin guitarists and keyboarders, a DJ, Rasta bassist, three back-up singers, and a Korg geek) twisted the Miseducation cut into a sped-up, sci-fi future funk sprint. The burning neo-soul of the original was still there somewhere, just accelerated and buried under spikes of synthy noise, spazzed-out drum fills, and snaking riffs.
It would be insane to claim that this version was better than the 1998 studio track. (How do you upgrade that kind of purity?) But it was fascinating. And it definitely seemed to say: If Ms. Lauryn Hill ever bothers to schedule studio time, cut a dozen new songs, and drop another full album, you can bet your entire fucking life on the fact that it will be a whole new world and not a second trip to some last-millenium Zion.
Like "Lost Ones," Hill's look has gotten a revamp, too. If you haven't paid attention since the '90s, you'd expect her to rock dreads and hoop earrings or maybe a headwrap and hemp dress. But this is a new and older woman, a mature Empress of Soul with crazy style. (On the topic of "crazy," have you seen Hill's fringed, red-leather jacket and plaid pant combo?) Anyway, she kept it pretty conservative last night: a pantsuit, blue-and-white-striped silk shirt, a massive afro, a pound of gold around her throat. And still, the lady radiated weird levels of 21st-century Afrocentricity, retro sex, and spacey funk.
For the next five songs (Miseducation classics "When It Hurts So Bad" and "Ex-Factor," Bob Marley's "Zimbabwe," "To Zion," and the Fugees' "How Many Mics"), the vibe remained the same: fast, futuristic, and fast. Working hard and wiping her face with a black towel, Hill introduced the crowd to her eight-year-old son Joshua ("To Zion"), scatted at double-speed ("How Many Mics"), launched into short bursting vocal flourishes, karate kicked the air, and looked back at her band, shouting: "Gimme energy! C'mon ... Energy! Energy! Energy! I need energy!"
But every ten minutes or so, she'd slow down for an interlude before taking things to their inevitable quick and heavy conclusion. And those rare rests were the only moments when you could really hear Hill sing. At no point did she extend her voice like she might've during her '90s prime. (And she'll probably never be that good again.) But her voice, even though certain imperfections might've been soaked up by the reverb, still has that signature smooth and throaty thing going on. This sure as hell isn't a Whitney situation.
Her condensed cover version of the Flamingos' cover version of pop standard "I Only Have Eyes for You" was another chance to listen while Hill explored the edges of her voice. But it only lasted a minute before she and the band blasted into the Fugees' "Zealots" (built around a Flamingos sample) and started deconstructing the motherfucker.
Like she had done earlier with "How Many Mics," Hill turned "Zealots" and two more tracks off The Score into happy beat, irie party jams. Just add some speed, a rocksteady throb, and bright guitars and "Fu-Gee-La" goes from sparse, smoky NYC ish to a soul-pop celebration. The Empress even squeezed similarly sunny stuff from "Ready or Not" before whipping the band into final surge and slipping offstage seconds before the whole thing went silent.
And that was the end. But as we discovered a few minutes later when we crept up to the stage like a stalker seeking a setlist, it wasn't supposed to be the end. On every official copy of the show's script, there were three additional songs printed in all-caps: "Killing Me Softly," Bob Marley's "Turn You Lights Down Low," and the one every UM freshman had been crying for all night, "Doo Wop (That Thing)."
Sorry, students. Maybe we should blame the Coral Gables noise ordinance?
Personal Bias: I've had a major crush on Rita Louise Watson, er, Ms. Lauryn Hill ever since I snuck into Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit on December 20, 1993.
The Crowd: A mass of thousands in orange and green, tossing the "U" and throwing fists. I, however, never attended the University of Miami. So probably, there were lots of other crashers and they (unlike me) were smart enough to wear camouflage.
Overheard in the Crowd: "People need to chill out. She's gonna play. But this ain't no rock show. Nobody ever goes onstage without smoking seven Ls."
Ms. Lauryn Hill's Setlist:
-"When It Hurts So Bad"
-"Zimbabwe" (Bob Marley cover)
-"How Many Mics"
-"I Only Have Eyes for You" (The Flamingos cover) and "Zealots"
-"Ready or Not"
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-"Killing me Softly" (Setlist note: "New then Orig")
-"Turn Your Lights Down Low" (Bob Marley cover)*
-"Doo Wop (That Thing)"*
*The last two songs were listed as the planned encore cuts.