Lauryn Hill had two strikes against her.
Like Sade, the Grammy-grabbing hip-hop/soul superstar has been largely absent from the stage and recording studio for almost a decade. When she does book a rare gig, Hill, like Sly Stone, Prince and Courtney Love, is notorious for showing up late.
With an advertised 9 p.m. start time Tuesday at First Avenue, the sell-out throng was thrilled when the screen in front of the stage went up at 11:32 -- only to reveal a DJ, not Hill. As he spun hip-hop hits, he announced: "Ms. Hill is in the building." A band eventually joined the DJ and then, at 11:54, it was finally star time.
For the next 109 minutes, Hill gave the kind of performance that nobody had the right to expect. She was loose, organic and emphatic. She seemed fully committed to her words, band and performance. She was in the moment, and she was kickin' it. In short, this was truly a superstar turn, the kind of concert that people will be talking about for years.
On her first extensive solo tour (well, 17 shows is extensive for her) since 1999, Hill, 35, has been receiving mixed reviews. Her tardiness has often put critics and concertgoers in a foul mood. When she arrived on the First Avenue stage, the stylishly retro-dressed diva started yakking, a habit that has sometimes led to misguided diatribes and public meltdowns. However, she was impressed by the packed club and "eclectic mix of people." She welcomed them with Bob Marley's "Forever Loving Jah" and then made her mission clear: "Let's set the mood and chase out all the negativity."
Hill did both. Mixing material from her landmark 1998 solo album "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" and 1996's "The Score" by her hip-hop trio, the Fugees, she reasserted her reputation as a fast, fierce and formidable rapper. Surprisingly, her singing was newly hoarse but heartfelt. Her voice either is not in shape for the road or she has to sing so hard over her loud but excellent band that she's straining. Her vocal deficiencies were especially noticeable on the Fugees' treatment of "Killing Me Softly" when neither her lower nor upper register had the color heard on the group's hit recording. On the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You," she had to rely on her three splendid female backup singers to carry the doo-wop vocals.
Nonetheless, Hill was totally invested in her singing, often seizing a lyrical line and riffing on it over and over again. She was equally spontaneous with her nine musicians (including three keyboardists, two bassists and a DJ), calling out changes in arrangements or conducting with her hand. The songs were strikingly reimagined, with textures and tempos changing dramatically. What a stark contrast to Hill's last local gig, a solo acoustic effort on the multi-act Smokin' Grooves Tour at Target Center in 2002.
Near the end of Tuesday's set, after her sexy talk-sing treatment of Marley's "Turn Your Lights Down Low," Hill ordered a spotlight to be shone on "the father of my [five] children" sitting in the balcony -- Rohan Marley, Bob's son, who had surprised her by showing up in Minneapolis. Now that may explain her marvelous mood and our good fortune.
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