I’ve been waiting to have a first-hand experience with Lauryn Hill’s boomingly soulful voice since the sixth grade. While any other recording artist I listened to as an adolescent would have fizzled out, overdosed or otherwise lost any sort of appeal by this point, Ms. Hill seems to possess a unique ability to eternally kill it — but not necessarily softly.
Although it wouldn’t be honest of me to say her performance last Saturday at the Santa Barbara Bowl was worth a decade’s wait, she did prove that her longevity is not unearned. The evening brought out far more Lauryn Hill fans than I thought existed in Santa Barbara, making it an especially good concert if you like to see rich white people get down. Not only did she manage to overcome the acoustics of the Bowl (which definitely don’t work in favor of a vocalist) to electrify the crowd with her ever-dynamic stage presence, but she did it all while pregnant.
Despite maintaining her famously shy persona, appearing cloaked in a hat and cape, I was blown away by the amount of energy and ferocity injected into each song.
The concert provided a far different experience than listening to any of her albums, in some ways for the better and others for the worse.
It was obvious from the moment Hill opened the show by hitting the audience with a raucous “Everything is Everything” that the tunes were going to be flavored by the intense style of her rapping persona, not the effortlessly silky vibe of “Killing Me Softly.” The vehemence yet sultry flair with which she performed her solo tunes — including “Lost One,” “Final Hour” and “Ex-Factor” — definitely made this my favorite segment of the concert. Hill followed with a medley of Fugees hits, but not like I remembered them. From a reggae-infused “How Many Mics” to a boisterous “Ready or Not,” I ended up being most sold on a completely faithful performance of “Fu-Gee-La.” And of course, Hill didn’t leave out a joyful Bob Marley cover, sending waves of smoke throughout the crowd with a rendition of “I Wanna Love Ya.”
My biggest complaint is how often Hill was overpowered by extensive band set-up. The amplified funk and improvisational quality the band lent her songs was refreshing, but I would have liked to hear less experimental instrumentation and more of Hill’s voice.
When it all boiled down, however, I think the evening would have benefitted from a taste of the smooth and mellow Lauryn Hill I grew up with.
In the end, I left the concert during the finale tune — “Doo Wop (That Thing)” — to get in my car, pop in Miseducation, and relive the glory days.