The often tardy singer was not only on time--by her standards--Friday at Jazz Fest, but she performed the show that fans believed was in her.
After a Jazz Fest that has had an unusual number of performers late to the stage, it was a pleasant surprise to see Ms. Lauryn Hill take the Congo Square Stage right on time Friday. Or, to be precise, her show started promptly at 5:45. Her DJ warmed up the crowd with 20 minutes of R&B, dance hall, and hip-hop including a minute or so of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.” Then, Hill came on stage wearing a cardinal red jacket over a bold, black and white striped dress with a high lace neck. She sat down, was handed an acoustic guitar, and started “I’ve Got to Find Peace of Mind”—a thought you can’t help but wish for her too if you’ve followed Hill at all.
Hill’s history of lateness is legendary, and although Friday’s show started as drama-free as imaginable, she still never seemed happy. Throughout the show, her gestures seemed agitated and urgent. Even when the camera caught her as she walked off stage at the end of the set, her face was all business—not a trace of relief or joy or any emotion that might accompany thoroughly crushing a show the way she did.
When there was a screw up in the introduction to “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Hill and her guitarist got it straight and started over without a trace of irritation or frustration. Instead, she focused on the song which, like “I’ve Got to Find Peace of Mind,” seemed like a mediation. Both songs appeared at Hill’s MTV Unplugged album, where she performed them on her own. Friday, her band grooved behind her, and the circular nature of funk emphasized the songs’ journey inward.
Her shows in New Orleans in recent years have showcased different aspects of her talent, each reminding you of how remarkable she can be. Her Voodoo 2014 set presented her as a passionate reggae-influenced soul singer, and when she stood up Friday and put down the guitar, she led her band through a set of African funk and hip-hop as Hill became a rap machine, spitting long passages of tongue-twisting lyrics with ferocious intensity.
Getting her monitor mix right once she stood up was an agitated ordeal, but it paid off as she grooved through “Ex-Factor” and “Final Hour,” and “Lost Ones,” in each case revving up the energy markedly from the versions on her classic, The Miseducation of Ms. Lauryn Hill. In the latter case, the young woman who cut the album in 1998 kissed off a guy, saying, “You might win some but you lost one” as if there’s another dude around the corner. Friday Hill delivered the line knowing that there’s more at stake, angry with the man for pissing away a potential good thing.
The set-ending run of The Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready or Not,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was thrilling as she mixed the musical excitement created by wrangling prolonged blasts of lyrics with crazy dexterity with attentiveness to the meaning of the words, feeling all of them. Hill’s band was solid throughout, but that seemed to be feeling it too as the groove grew to P-funk proportions by the end.
As a whole, the show served as a reminder why fans and festival bookers continue give Hill second, third, fourth and fifth chances. The possibility of getting a show like the one she delivered Friday makes the gamble worth it.
Elsewhere at Jazz Fest:
- Even before I knew that Paul Simon had a penthouse in New York where his only neighbor is Lorne Michaels, I heard the sound of money in his immaculately tasteful recordings. That didn’t change Friday, but it was nice to see Simon animated—at least by his standards. He gesticulated through the final chorus of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” like a freshman in a high school drama class, but it was a lightness I never associate with someone who frequently treats his songs as if each one were a sonic Faberge egg.
- Los Lobos seemed to be pioneering a new, Spanish language acoustic dub when it performed La Pistola y El Corazon on the Fais Do-Do Stage. Where I stood in the front left, the booming bajo sexto overwhelmed all but the trebly scratching of aggressively strummed guitar rhythms. The sound had little texture, and whatever Cesar Rojas was doing on his guitar was lost. Friends who watched from other areas heard nothing but treble. Complaining about Jazz Fest sound feels dully repetitive, but that show was hopelessly marred by it.
- Guitarist Bill Kirchen was an unannounced guest with The Creole String Beans, and his old school guitar picking gave the band’s swamp pop and South Louisiana rock ’n’ roll a fresh ripple of energy, even though the band was clearly bringing him up to speed on the songs on the fly. Still, the joy of the set came when the band brought out swamp pop singer T.K. Hulin, who rolled back the clock to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Hullin performed like a country cousin, fascinated by the city and its newfangled ways. “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?” he asked, grinning as he quoted the 42 year-old “Lady Marmalade.” “You know what that means?”
He put aside his Inner Beavis when singing and did a thing that people don’t do anymore. While the band played at a right but pokey tempo, he sang the Bobby Charles song “Before I Grow Too Old” as if he knew the clock was ticking and there was a lot of life led to lead and a lot of voulez that needed couchin’.