Small Axe: A Look At Lauryn Hill's New Acoustic Live Show [Photos + Recap]
photos by Pascal Bernier
Lauryn Hill performed her second of six gigs in NYC Monday night showcasing the new, all-acoustic incarnation of her live show, entitled SMALL AXE: Acoustic Performance Series. With lush couches, rugs, chairs and candles lit around the stage, the setting felt much like an MTV-unplugged session, or as if you entered a vibey studio space, instead of the usual generic feel of the Highline Ballroom (the show will continue with two more dates at the Blue Note, and two more following that at Madiba Harlem, the newly-opened South African restaurant and entertainment center, a companion restaurant to the original Madiba, a fixture of Fort Greene, Brooklyn). Ms. Hill was inviting us into intimacy, before she even arrived on the stage–which wasn’t until 11pm despite the 8pm door time.
Before the show, we were treated to a screening of “Concerning Violence,” a film we first caught at Sundance last year to which Hill leant her voice as the narrator. It was a bit confusing for the audience, simply for the lack of set-up (what, are we here to watch a movie?) but once it got going the crowd seemed engaged and appreciative of its highly political subject matter and anti-colonial theme. Next up, the party was set off with a heat rock set by DJ Natasha Diggs. And then finally, the show began, and as expected, Lauryn Hill was greeted with an uproar of applause – a crowd that hasn’t stopped loving her since 1998’s Miseducation. For most of the show she sat on the couch, acoustic guitar in her lap, and sung. She took a deep breath and sung, just a bit – something we’ve been waiting quite some time for. Most of her original songs were re-worked–as she’s done in most of her recent shows–but not at the completely frenetic 150 bpms pace of the past (though perhaps still a bit too fast-paced for this writer’s liking).
She had a solid trio on stage with her – Biscuit on the drums (from Philly), The Roots regular Ray Angry, holding it down on a Hammond B3 organ and a Wurlitzer PLUS providing the low end on Moog all night, while Jordan Peters sat next to Lauryn on a chair with an acoustic guitar. Ray Angry really took it home during his solo on Lauryn’s titular cover of Bob Marley’s “Small Axe.” Behind the couch sat three gorgeous back-up singers, with voices to match – Candace, Tara Harrison, and Tanikka Charrae. The band wove in and out, following Ms. Hill on each song, generally letting her intro each piece with a solo moment, just her on guitar and vocals, then breaking into a full force acoustic jam session, mostly led by the drummer. The addition of Ray Angry on the organs gave the entire evening not only a palpable warmth but a vintage feel which made a very nice addition to the songs. Ms. Hill kicked off the show with a bunch of songs off of her ’02 album MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, including “Mr. Intentional”; “Adam Lives in Theory”; “Oh Jerusalem”; “Just Want You Around” and “I Gotta Find Peace Of Mind.” Toward the end of the set, she got into Miseducation joints with her re-worked editions of “Final Hour”; “Ex Factor”; “To Zion” and “Doo Wop”–and ended by sprinkling in some Fugees classics like “Fugee La” and “Ready or Not.”
The show was still, perhaps, a bit too-fast-paced for this Hill fan, but I remain hopeful. Her vocals were much more digestible, lush, and confident than any Hill show I’ve seen in the past 4 years. The speedy renditions work only when she’s rapping – her rap game has never faltered, she’s still one of the best, top of the charts. Throughout this acoustic set she would flow with ease from singer to rapper mode, though there was little rapping. A highlight came during the last song (“Doo Wop”) when she abandoned the sitting position on her couch, stood up and grabbed the mic, rapping in full force, returning for just a minute to that confident, unshaken Lauryn we remember and love, still. As for her singing – there were a few magic, slowed down, quiet moments (enough for me) when Lauryn just sang. Just her and the guitar. Just her and her beautiful voice. And that was all I wanted to hear.