Lauryn Hill’s concerts pose something of a chicken-or-egg question these days: Does she have to reinvent herself on stage because she has gone so long between albums, or has she gone so long between albums because she’s been reinventing herself on stage?
Whatever the answer, the former Fugees co-leader and hip-hop icon laid a golden egg of a performance at First Avenue on Sunday night. The crux of the two-hour set was Hill’s bold new interpretations of the songs from her last studio album, 1998’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” — a record that’s now old enough to vote.
Hill, 41, has been relatively reclusive for most of this millennium, but this was her third performance at First Ave in five years. In all likelihood, the club’s shared history with Prince is a big reason why.
The little giant did not come up until the very end of the show, which coincidentally but fittingly followed the dramatic three-night stand by Prince’s Revolution bandmates in his honor. Hill praised him before a gut-wrenching version of a song not played the prior nights, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
“I know this city is still mourning, as well all are, and celebrating his life, like we are,” she said, making her only extended comments of the night. “Thank you for sharing him with us, because we know you guys loved him first. And First Avenue loved him first.”
Even his last time playing the club in 2007, Prince didn’t charge anywhere near the kind of money for tickets that Hill did: $77 per ticket, a new high for First Ave. She gave the 1,400 fans their money’s worth, though, going on just 45 minutes late (that’s early for her) and bringing along a 13-member live band that was literally and figuratively enormous.
With her small platoon attacking from the get-go, Hill remade the opening songs “Everything Is Everything” and “Conformed to Love” into chaotically rhythmic, Fela Kuti-style Afrobeat jams with the horn section going full blast. She then sat down with an acoustic guitar as the big band gracefully played an intricate “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind,” in which her trio of out-front backup singers came off like a modern version of Bob Marley’s tourmates the I Threes.
Thoughtfully piecing the set list together, Hill often paired songs that matched up sonically or thematically. She followed “Ex-Factor” by dramatically cooing another breakup song, “When It Hurts So Bad,” which was reshaped into a moody, psychedelic R&B epic à la Isaac Hayes. Then she unleashed her sharp rapper tongue in sped-up, back-to-back versions of “Final Hour” and “Lost Ones.” Then came the way-oldies.
“Where my Fugees fans at?” she yelled before “Fu-Gee-La” and an awesomely booming “How Many Mics.”
After quick run-throughs of “Jamming” and “Is This Love” — tunes by Marley, her children’s late grandfather — Hill stretched out widest and best in “Zion,” the climax of the set. That one was reinterpreted into a slow, haunting epic as she unabashedly channeled Nina Simone, whose own song “Feeling Good” came next.
Hill’s nods to Simone, Marley and Prince — all renowned live performers in their time — reiterated there’s a lot more to being a legendary musician than making records. Sure, it’d be great to finally get another album from her, but if she keeps performing like she did Sunday, she should still go down as a legend herself.