The Blue Note
Monday, January 3
Better Than: You had any right to expect
The bad news always comes first with Lauryn Hill. And so. Initial advertised start time: 8 p.m. Revised start time as of this evening: 11. Mood at 10:05: anxious. (Two different Blue Note folks use the words “hopefully,” “start,” and “eleven” in a sentence while I’m taking off my coat.) PA announcement at 11:05: “Lauryn will be on really soon.” (“Is that five minutes or less?” someone shouts; “10 minutes?” comes the answer.) 11:23: a DJ shows up to “set a nice mystical mood.” (Which involves lots of Bob Marley.) 11:42: the band appears, crowding the tiny stage, and starts idly vamping. 11:50: The couple next to me, who I learn have been sitting there since 7:15, leaves in disgust, explaining that they have a train to catch, the male half noting diplomatically that “That’s how Lauryn is.” 11:57: Lauryn steps onstage. I feel terrible for those poor people who left, both because they missed the show, and because the show itself was actually fantastic.
You know this about Lauryn Hill already, of course: the relentless lateness, the defiant aggro-rock scrambling of her beloved solo + Fugees back catalog (typical banter: “See if you recognize this one!”), the physically painful rasp now seemingly omnipresent in her voice. Only two out of three tonight, though: Her voice sounds great, actually, clear and brash and lethal, shifting from the straight reggae crooning of “Forever Loving Jah” (more Bob Marley) to the rap-metal swagger of “Lost Ones” to the simmering torch-song theatrics of “When It Hurts So Bad,” directing the band to lay out as she adds a wailing a capella coda that leaves her nowhere to hide and no reason to. There’s a mic in her right hand and a black handkerchief in her left; she dabs at her face nearly every second she’s not singing. “If I had a bikini I would still be sweating this much,” she notes, as someone in the front row continually waves a napkin at her, semi-helpfully. “It’s the lights.”
Once you accept that you’re probably not going to get these songs as you originally heard/loved them, you’re free to marvel at the audacity of Ms. Lauryn Hill in 2011: the breathless rant of “Ex-Factor,” say, basically performed twice in full, the second time with way more psych-rock wooziness. Hill is a tough bandleader, constantly hectoring both the soundman (poor Lucas, name-checked mid-song roughly 50 times tonight) and the players themselves: “Where we going? Where we going?” she demands as one keyboardist takes a deranged prog-rock solo during “To Zion.” But the maelstrom doesn’t overwhelm her the way it apparently did at other shows, even with the much smaller and less sonically forgiving venue, and eventually she starts singing the songs more or less the way you originally heard/loved them: From “Fu-Gee-La” on, the crowd’s on its feet (a rarity at the Blue Note) as she blows through “Ready or Not,” “Killing Me Softly,” and a climactic “Doo Wop” with aplomb.
It’s around 1:45 a.m., and there’s a feeling that we all avoided disaster here: The show could’ve started way later, and bypassed “intimate” and headed straight for “incredibly loud and painfully incoherent.” But instead, the immense frustration of the wait behind us, the dominant memory is the unremitting joy driving “Fu-Gee-La,” Lauryn beaming and clearly enjoying herself in a way she hasn’t seemed to in quite a while. She always makes you work for it. At last, she’s started rewarding you when you do.
Critical Bias: The last time I saw her, at Wingate Field in 2007, didn’t go quite as well.
Overheard: Lots of grumbling up until midnight, lots of elation from there on.
Random Notebook Dump: On “To Zion”: “This is a song I wrote while I was in the shower, about my now 13-year-old son. It was the only privacy I could get at one point.”
Forever Loving Jah
When It Hurts So Bad
How Many Mics
I Only Have Eyes for You/Zealots
Ready or Not
Killing Me Softly
Turn Your Lights Down Low