On the Beat

July 21, 2014

Lauryn Hill's reggae got soul

Lauryn Hill seems to want to be a folksinger, but she's still great when she puts down the guitar and brings the neo-soul, as she did at Red Hat Amphitheater on Sunday.

Forty-five minutes and seven songs into her Sunday night show at Red Hat Amphitheater, Lauryn Hill had built up a pretty good head of steam. She’d just run through a terrific version of “To Zion,” amping up the 1998 original’s slow-burn balladry to propulsive rock, topped off with her lead guitarist playing a fiery solo.

So what did Hill do next? She commanded the band to fall silent and brought everything way, way down by sitting on a stool and strumming an acoustic guitar to give us a Didactic Folk Interlude. Tepid applause greeted each song in this 15-minute segment (which felt much, much longer) and the energy level plummeted because, as a folksinger, Hill is one heckuva shortstop.

Hill has had one of the most peculiar career arcs of modern times. Emerging from the mega-popular reggae-rap group the Fugees, she made a splashy solo debut with 1998’s neo-soul masterpiece “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” which sold hugely and won every award there was to win. And she has seemed to be trying to commit career suicide ever since, most notably with a 2002 solo acoustic “Unplugged” album (from whence came the folk songs she played Sunday night), in which Hill talked almost as much as she sang.

The good news is that, except for the ill-advised mid-set troubadour move, most of Hill’s current live set plays to her strengths – an energetic, rocked-up fusion of old-school soul with reggae. The late great Bob Marley is more of a touchstone for Hill than ever; her set included five Marley covers, including the show-opening “Soul Rebel.”

Always shy about the spotlight, Hill sent her band and backup singers out first to vamp for a bit. Then she sang the first verse from backstage before striding out in an exotic white ensemble that looked like something the Supremes might have worn back in Motown’s glory days. “Soul Rebel” yielded to the Fugees’ signature arrangement of the Roberta Flack standard “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” rendered as Marley or Peter Tosh might have done it, and the staccato cadences of “Everything Is Everything.”

As a vocalist, Hill doesn’t have a particularly powerful voice. But she’s a distinctive, nimble singer who can ride the beat, and her rapid-fire raps showed impressive velocity. She and her band also played around with the arrangements, such as mashing up the Fugees’ “How Many Mics” with the 1978 Police song “Can’t Stand Losing You” (a neat trick, moving the Police’s reggae cops from rock back to reggae). She also demanded more volume from the sound system, and got enough of it that a few noise complaints popped up on the Facebook page for the nearby Boylan Heights neighborhood.

Of course, leaving aside the abomination that is her “Unplugged” disaster, the fact remains that Hill hasn’t put out a real record of new material since 1998. That made for a set that was heavy on nostalgia, since most of its two dozen songs were at least a decade and a half old. But on the closing stretch of Fugees and Marley songs, topped by Hill’s own No. 1 hit “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the crowd could not have cared less about that.

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David Menconi
News & Observer music critic David Menconi's random (and we do mean random) musings about all things related to music and culture of the popular variety.

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