Lauryn Hill played a surprise show in Brooklyn last night (right here in Okayplayer’s neighborhood, in fact–at The Music Hall Of Williamsburg); a spur of the moment affair that was arranged last minute when her three-month prison sentence for Tax Evasion was handed down last week, giving the ultra-rare performance an even more heightened sense of the “unicorn effect” that attends every Lauryn Hill appearance these days. In short, we were not for a second considering not being there–or not documenting it for the ages with Seher Sikandar‘s luminous photography (full gallery to come–keep these two shots to hold you until we download and edit the full set!)
After a DJ Set from Q-Tip (who was apparently in two places at once last night) and some warm up jams that included everything from Nas‘ “Made U Look” to Major Lazer’s Busy Signal collabo “Watch Out For This (Bumaiye)” star time came more or less on time. Lauryn stepped on stage in a simple black frock that would have recalled her cameo in Sister Act 2, except for the heavy African-style medallion holding it down and subtly reminding us that Ms. Hill is also in a very real sense ‘Mrs. Marley’. Briefly acknowledging the crowd’s audible excitement with “I love you too. I missed you too…,” she and her band launched straight into a frenzied opening set that included new and complex arrangements of Miseducation hits “Everything Is Everything”; “Superstar” and “Concrete Jungle” from her Father-in-Law-in-spiritual-essence Bob Marley–all played at warp speed.
The first 20-30 minutes of the show in fact was marked by a certain frantic feeling that has run through almost all of her recent performances; the music is sped-up, full of nervous, catch-the-spirit energy; the singing tremulous. She seems to be racing through her body of work like a woman who is running out of time and-with a short prison bid beginning as soon as June 8th–perhaps she is. The formative influences of soul, reggae–and increasingly, dissonant rock–are channeled into ambitious, almost unrecognizable, arrangements of her familiar songs, re-imaginings that threaten to form their own weird genre, sitting uncomfortably somewhere between speed-gospel and surf metal. Ms. Hill expended much of her energy putting the soundman and her band–who appear to be almost entirely new personnel form her 4th of July performance last year–through their paces, though the result was more like listening to soundcheck than bandleading James Brown-style.
The dissonance peaked with the first performance of new material: the song “Black Rage” (also the title of her forthcoming Lauryn Hill tour with Nas), which feels more like offbeat spoken word than melody–but 2/3 through the song, something pretty amazing happened. Repeating and riffing on the phrases of her tone poem–which included “Black Rage takes many forms”; “I remember the whips and the dog bites” became “I remember, so I don’t fear / I don’t fear when they come to take me away…” As the band quieted the backing track at Ms. Hill’s direction the tone poem became “I don’t fear when they come to take me away / I don’t fear when they come to take me to jail…” The crowd exploded in emotion and solidarity and for a few virtuosic seconds Lauryn embodied everything that the assembled massive had been wanting to project on her; the power of art, the fearlessness in the face of oppression and a deeper perspective on where those things fit into the big picture of life. In short, one of those electric moments of catharsis you may have forgotten live music could still deliver.
As if finally in the same space with the crowd the next few songs were more hits than misses: “Lost Ones” got a fast, off-tempo intro, breaking down into a slow skank over Aswad‘s “Dub Fire” riddim. “How Many Mics” got a pogo-ing punk version and on “Fugee La,” Lauryn rapped Clef’s parts as well as her own. Many of the night’s highlights came when she showed out her half-forgotten (and incredible) prowess as an MC, playing with cadence with rapid-fire pacing and a gospel singer’s breath control, using the counterpoint of her own echo like a veteran Jamaican singjay; revelatory for an art-form that is almost always disappointing live, propped up with stage tricks rather than raw talent. “Ready Or Not” received one of the straightest renditions of the night, the infamous Enya loop coming in immediately after Lauryn asked “We have any Fugee fans out here?” to a deafening forward. “Killing Me Softly” brought more dissonant metal guitar fuzz but by the time she nailed the soaring “whhoah-oh-oh” melody of the bridge, nobody cared. Likewise, “Ex-Factor” saw an extended improvisation on “look at what you’ve done to me,” bringing home the phrase “why won’t you live for me” with an incredibly intricate acapella layering that the back up singers did not seem quite ready for, before a thundering crescendo.
“A lot of words, lot of thoughts. We got to fill up that 10-year gap…” Lauryn told the crowd between encores, as if explaining that she was not running out of time but making up for lost time. The second encore began with her new single “Neurotic Society,” which is indeed a lot of words. Ostensibly the theme for the whole performance, this cut reversed the night’s tempo as Lauryn stopped the band, making them play slower and slower until the barrage of words were easily comprehensible, writing a “decoded” on her own song, right in the moment. In a possible nod to Talib Kweli, she exhorted her fans to “Get off that hamster wheel” and then launched into a medley of Bob’s “We Jammin” into Stevie’s “Master Blaster” that had the most natural pacing and feel of the night, as if she could finally relax. During the ‘lot of words’ aside she let it be known that “I’m gonna compile the music I’ve been making over years, that I didn’t get to share…and share that with you.” There were also rumors in the air of another pre-prison Lauryn Hill show in the works–possibly at Madison Square Garden. The band finished the night with “Could You Be Loved” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” but the real encore was provided by 4 of her 6 children–3 sons and daughter Sarah–who joined her onstage for some adorably awkward raps but mostly served as a powerful reminder that, as she put it at her sentencing, she is a person not just a persona; specifically, a mother–and one facing a jail sentence.
Though often rough, the performance gave a glimpse of the ambition and brilliance of what we might be getting from a Lauryn Hill ‘Black Rage’ tour in the fall, if the new band works out the kinks and Ms. Hill relaxes into a less harried performance pace, gets back in the same breathing space as her following. It also, of course, is a reminder of what we’ll miss if she does not get her legal troubles behind her once and for all. As a final sign off to her fans, she ended simply with: “We’ll do this again.” To which the only appropriate reply is: Lick 2 shots in the atmosphere.