Lauryn Hill, Charlie Wilson, and Bobby Brown at Jazz in the Gardens, March 19

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See the full 22-photo Jazz in the Gardens slideshow.

Jazz in the Gardens

With Ms. Lauryn Hill, Charlie Wilson, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant, Al Jarreau, Layla Hathaway, and Others

Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Better Than: Hanging out with Kenny G in the bushes off Florida's Turnpike.

Isn't Jazz in the Gardens a bit of a misnomer? Ms. Lauryn Hill, Uncle Charlie Wilson, and the diabolical Bobby Brown aren't exactly practitioners of that great American art form known as "jazz." And despite its patches of dying brown grass, there's no way Sun Life Stadium's parking lot can be honestly called a "garden."

Of course, I know ... Some of this festival's other performers are lightly tinged by a poppy kind of jazziness, especially grown types like fiery Layla Hathaway and scat-prone Al Jarreau. And indeed, the grounds are located squarely within the borders of Miami Gardens.

But perhaps we should petition Mayor Shirley Gibson for a newer, less stuffy name? We could call the fest something like "The Mature and Sexy Soul Patrol Springtime Revue."

Yeah, it's probably a stupid idea. And really, it doesn't even matter 'cause this parking-lot party's already pretty fun, even with its current clean and classy moniker. There's deep-fried food, plenty of booze, handsome men, beautiful ladies, and two entire days of funky old-school party music. What else do you need, brothers and sisters?

Early Saturday, though, Hathaway's torch songs and Jarreau's skillful musical goofery weren't actually festival-goers main focus. Peeps were hungry and the music was just background sound for cranberry cocktails, conch salad in hollowed-out pineapples, and monster platefuls of crispy crab, shrimp, and white fish -- not to mention plenty of casual post-meal conversation between consenting adults.

As for those few foks who weren't macking on some eats or a hot date, they were already protecting their seats near the stage in anticipation of B. Brown, Uncle Charlie, and Ms. Hill. Sitting back, they watched rubber-faced 71-year-old Grammy-winning singer Al Jarreau play an hour-long daytime set. He made funny faces. He hit inhumanly high notes. He practiced some proto-beatboxing scat stuff. And he did a chicken dance, joking, "Mick Jagger ain't got nothin' on me," before tossing out the parting words, "I gotta go to the bathroom, y'all."

Soon, the sun went down. The crowd flooded toward the stage. And it started to feel like a real damn party. People were fed. There were a little drunk. And they were starting to dance in the aisles. I guess nighttime just makes people crazy.

At exactly 7:31 p.m., one-third of New Edition -- Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant -- bounced out in matching steel gray satin suits and black hats with bowties already undone. It was a not too subtle yet suave I-just-has-some-quickie-sex-in-my-VIP-trailer look.

The trio, calling itself Heads of State, crooned 55 minutes of mostly solo cuts like Tresvant's "Stone Cold Gentleman," Brown's "Every Little Step," and Gill's "There U Go." And as always, Bad Bobby was performing one of his favorite stage tricks, fiendishly flicking his tongue as if he were kissing a set of sweet lady parts.

But then, halfway through "Roni," Brown got even nastier. He paused to address the females in the audience: "Are there any Ronis out there tonight? Single? Or that your man's getting on your goddamn nerves? One or the other, you choose. I'll be here! I'll wait!" He got down on his knees. "You know, sometimes when I ain't got the words to tell my lady how I'm feelin' at the time, this is the shit I do. I ask my guitar player to come over, stand outside the window, and just take it there. Take it all the way there while I do this shit!" And then he dry-humped the stage like a dog that just ate a week's worth of Viagra. That's romance.

Later, though, Johnny Gill took a smoother approach to scoring some love, bringing out a giant bouquet of red roses and throwing a few single stems into the audience before slow-jamming his way into "My, My, My" and hopping off the stage to serenade, hug, and get toweled down by swooning 35-year-old fans.

You could smell the sexy in the air. And by the time Gap Band singer and all-out funk king Uncle Charlie Wilson showed up at 9:04 p.m., the hot and heavy love session was swinging hard.

His epically long-lasting 17-song set was undoubtedly the fan fave of the evening. Kicking off with the Gap Band's "Party Train" and running through R&B baby-makers like "Let's Chill," "Whatcha Wanna Do," and "I Wanna Be Your Man," this 58-year-old OG playa was working miracles, seducing every single female member of the crowd, grandmammas and teen girls alike.

It wasn't all sexiness and seduction, though. Uncle Charlie took a timeout for worship, singing and preaching: "I went from rags to riches! Riches to rags! Rags to the curb! And curb to homeless! I was an alcoholic! And a crack-cocaine addict! Oh my God! Now I'm back to number one! 'Cause I found someone greater than myself who picked me up! Turned me around! Placed my feet over solid ground! I'm 17 years clean and sober! I was diagnosed with prostate cancer! Now I'm cancer-free! Somebody say, 'Yeah'! Somebody say, 'Yeah'! I promised him, every time I got on the stage, I was gonna give him some praise! So if you've ever done anything, get on your feet and let's give him some praise right now! On the count of three, I want you to scream for everybody all night! We wanna shake the screws loose on Sun Life Stadium over there! One! Two! Three!"

And holy shit, those people praised! The crowd noise didn't even die down till Ms. Lauryn Hill's set got seriously delayed by technical difficulties.

Originally scheduled to start at 10:35 p.m., Hill's show was running late because the stage techs couldn't seem to get the mic setup right. And so, the event staff decided to stall for time by running an endless stream of Jazz in the Gardens public service announcements starring each and every Miami Gardens councilor. Watching the crowd, I could already see tiny pockets of people heading for the exit.

Thankfully, it was all eventually solved. And by 11:46 p.m., Hill got her formal introduction and strode out in a crazily layered ensemble: a flat-brimmed Yankees cap, red leather jacket, several shirts, a puffy skirt, and a few other expensive layers. One particularly astute shit-talker in the crowd described Ms. Hill's style as "millionaire bag lady."

This kind of weirdo stage getup (like her chronic tardiness, gaudy lipstick, and erratic performances) has become a hallmark of the comeback shows that Hill's been doing for the last year. And no doubt, it's all very shocking, especially compared with her former neo-soul superqueen persona. But if you can finally get past the fact that she's no longer the Lauryn Hill of 13 years ago, this whole new millionaire bag lady thing is actually kind of awesome, just like the radically rewired versions of her hits.

That said, though, Ms. Hill's Jazz in the Gardens show last night was nowhere near as frenetic and fascinating as her performance back in November for the University of Miami homecoming. The setlists ended up being basically the same for both shows, heavily dosed with Miseducation tracks and classic Fugees cuts: "Everything Is Everything," "Superstar," "How Many Mics", etc. But last night's space-y rap rock revamps didn't exactly match up. Her band wasn't as propulsive, dense, and strangely compelling. And even though her voice seems stronger now than four months ago, Hill was mostly out-of-sync too.

Throughout the set, seats were being vacated. And I wondered: Are people trying to beat traffic? Are they tired 'cause it's past their bedtime? Or are they seriously that sick of marginally unrecognizable versions of their favorite songs?

Unfortunately, most of those escapees missed a couple of the night's major highlights. First, there was a surprisingly straight-forward cover of Bob Marley's "Is This Love" during which Hill actually unleashed her voice a bit, letting it ride out entire lines without veering off into strange improvisational sections. And last, there was Hill's finisher, "Doo Wop," a simple and familiar, yet still entirely new take that got tens of thousands throwing hands.

Critic's Notebook

The Crowd: A massive mature and sexy (i.e. mostly 30 and over) congregation in headwraps, Kangol hats, monochromatic outfits, paisley summer dresses, and Obama swag. By Miami Gardens mayor Shirley Gibson's estimation, there were "more than 50,000" people this year.

Lauryn Hill's Setlist:

-"Everything Is Everything"

-"Sweetest Thing"

-"Lost Ones"

-"When It Hurts So Bad"



-"Zimbabwe" (Bob Marley cover)

-"Is This Love" (Bob Marley cover)

-"How Many Mics"

-"I Only Have Eyes for You" (Flamingos cover)



-"Ready or Not"

-"Killing Me Softly"

-"Turn Your Lights Down Low" (Bob Marley cover)

-"Doo Wop (That Thing)"

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