My love affair started with Lauryn Hill at 6 years old when I convinced my parents to buy my Walkman’s first tape; Fugees’ The Score album. It’s fair to say that with a relationship lasting 20 years, my adoration for her runs pretty deep. However, as much as L-Boogie holds the spot of one of my favourites of all time, a history of hit-and-miss shows – from not showing up to erratic behaviour left my expectations for whenever I was to finally see her live, pretty low. But amongst good vibes brought by the thick crowd of slightly pissed up festival ravers, a stellar warm up show and DJ set, epic surroundings and the knowledge I was about to see one of my favourites ever, even tapered expectations couldn’t dim my excitement when she hit the stage.
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Lauryn introduced herself by singing Bob Marley‘s Soul Rebel. She then launched into a reinterpretation of The Fugees’ Killing Me Softly.The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Except, she didn’t play them as we knew them. Everything is Everything got a country spin with a heavy reggae dub. Final Hour became a hip-twisting Latin-tinged cut, with her salsa’ing across the stage. For a moment we were misled into thinking Zion was going to take it’s original form – then she sped it up and changed her flow.
She related Lost One to her relationship with “the government/system” (and last years’ stint in jail for tax evasion) as she gave it a fun, dub-heavy refix. But by the time she delivered X Factor as an unrecognisable reggae joint, with an admittedly awesome electric guitar solo from her band, I felt disappointment begin to settle over me.
Her showmanship was on top form; she interacted with her band, dancers-cum-backing singers and the crowd comfortably while serving up a high energy performance. But she was messing with her classics.
Deconstructing the songs beyond a point of easy recognition was frustrating for Lauryn fans. Miseducation isn’t just an iconic record – it’s her only (official) album. And opportunities to see it live are scarce.
So perhaps born from a false sense of ownership that music fans have, but these weird refixes of her tunes weren’t cutting it.
The beauty of Lauryn’s voice has always been that it’s not pitch-perfect. Raw, raspy and emoting with every note, we expect the odd coarse bit. But onstage, sometimes breathless (she switched up her flow to a pace that at times seemed uncomfortable), a few strained notes and singing songs in a key lower than we’re used to had us speculating if her insistence to change her songs up was to do with her not being able to sing them as recorded anymore.
Then came the second half of her performance. She reemerged with a stripped-back stage; no band, just her, an acoustic guitar, a stool and her backing singers. She delivered her MTV Unplugged cuts Mr Intentional, Adam Lives in Theory and Jerusalem with beautiful simplicity. As if she heard me questioning if she lost her voice, she showed us what she can still do. The last of her acoustic set was her remake of Bob Marley’s Turn Your Lights Down Low.
The band returned for her Fugees set, kicked off with Zealots. No longer did her edits take the songs beyond recognition; now the cuts sounded as they should have – a much amplified version of the tunes we know. How Many Mics took a crazy rock-meets-dub twist halfway through, while Fugee-La had enough bass to make the ground shake a little. Ready or Not was owned by the band with wicked instrumentation while Killing Me Softly was back, actually sounding like Killing Me Softly as the whole amphitheatre sung along.
Constantly honouring her late father-in-law Bob Marley, Lauryn launched into Jammin’, followed by Stevie Wonder‘s Masterblaster and heading back to Bob for Is The Love. Her interpretation of Nancy Sinatra’s served a beautiful curveball.
She closed her near 2 hour set with Doo Wop (That Thing) and rapturous applause.
She heads to the UK later this month for a set of shows, including two nights at Brixton Academy. With Ms. Hill’s performance history I can’t call on whether audiences will get, but if this show was anything to go by, fans are in for something quite epic – if they can persevere through some dodgy remixes.