Much has been made recently of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s unreliability: in the short run-up to last night’s last-minute show at the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall (it was only announced on May 6), social media has been sprinkled with articles about, among other things, Hill’s chronic lateness (she showed up more than two hours late to a show in Atlanta and left the stage after 20 minutes). Even Questlove was peeved, and wrote a rather loopy open letter
on his Facebook page, urging Hill to get it together, for her own sake.
Hill posted an apology on her own Facebook
page, assuring fans that her lateness is not a symptom of indifference:
“…Because I care so deeply about the artistic process, I scrutinize, have perfectionist tendencies, and want space made for spontaneity, which is not an easy process, with the many moving parts on the road. Some days we are more successful than others re time. However, the vitality that is infused into the performances is always appreciated by the audiences, who may not know exactly what it took to accomplish. What hasn't been touched upon by the media, I'm sure, are the hundreds of people who rushed the stage and stayed in excess of an hour after the show ended last night, just to connect
Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Blue Note
Courtesy of the artist
Given that, and the fact that Hill had already canceled tonight’s Baltimore show, I had my doubts that the Pittsburgh show (her first since 1999) would happen at all.
Honestly, I was rooting for Hill to do whatever the hell she wanted: in light of the historical celebration of temperamental, unpredictable male rock stars, attacking a brilliant artist like Hill (who has had her fair share of well-publicized struggles) for inconveniencing her audiences seems pretty unfair. And it seems rather grotesquely capitalist to demand that any artist give you your “money’s worth.” A live performance is not a trip to Starbucks: constancy is not always part of the deal.
At the venue, there was a palpable vibe of cautious excitement – signs at the entrance had Hill slated for a 9:15 p.m. performance, following a DJ set, but everyone knew that anything could happen. When Hill did take the stage it was around 10 p.m., but no one in the sold-out room seemed to mind: hyped up on the DJ’s collection of soul and hip-hop hits, everyone was already having fun, and we were grateful to see her.
Wearing a flamboyant red, ruffled jumpsuit, Hill ruled the stage, which was crowded with a full band, including a horn section and three backup singers. In light of her rough PR week, opener “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” felt especially poignant and showcased Hill’s profound gift for turning raw expressions of human frailness into something bordering on sacred.
Nearly every song was played at around twice the usual tempo, which at times felt exhausting but was mostly dazzling. The band kept pace with Hill’s frenetic rapping, as she moved through songs like “Mystery of Iniquity” and “Everything is Everything,” and Fugees' tracks like “Fu-Gee La” and “Ready or Not.” Anyone expecting album-replicas would have been disappointed, but almost two decades after The Miseducation …
Hill’s interpretations of her own songs are fully alive: last night’s rendition of “Ex-Factor” was a fevered gut-punch that will forever change the way I understand that song.
It’s easy to see what Hill means when she talks about her “perfectionist tendencies.” Throughout the set, she continuously signaled to a tech to make minor changes, and put her entire body into conducting her band, which seemed truly immersed in the moment. At times the sound was muddy (that room doesn’t always handle volume well, and this show was certainly much louder than I expected), and one woman in the bathroom complained that, from the balcony, she couldn’t hear anything Hill said (the only other complaint I heard was from another woman who said she paid $60 to hear Hill sing, not rap — which she actually did more later on in the show with songs like “Killing Me Softly.”)
Hill rounded out the night with some reggae covers and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she recorded for the compilation Nina Revisited … A Tribute to Nina Simone
. It was indeed an evening of, as Hill would say, “many moving parts,” which all came together to create an evening that probably exceeded most people’s expectations. Hill is right that some days are more successful than others, in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. And luckily for us last night was, by any standards, a total success.