Friday, September 26, 2014

Lauryn Hill, Manchester Apollo, 25th September 2014 7.5/10

There’s no doubt this was a memorable night, albeit not for exclusively musical reasons. Three hours after doors, The Apollo echoed with boos. The DJ, who’d worked the crowd to a frenzy with classic 90’s hits from the likes of Michael Jackson, had apparently given up and retreated back stage. Around me, there were shouts of ‘refund’, and the atmosphere felt distinctly uncomfortable. When the band finally came on stage and started jamming, there was still no sign of Ms. Hill and the boos continued. The hall breathed a collective sense of relief when she eventually showed up in a black fedora. Yet, events were to take an even more bizarre turn: after an eccentric version of Ex-Factor, Lauryn asked the crowd: ‘Who are the dissenters?' The reply came: ‘We’re confused’ and things got awkward as she persisted in her questioning. Meanwhile, those reliant on by now rapidly diminishing public transport options started to leave the venue, and the gig trended on Twitter in, with adjectives such as ‘shambles’ being used.

This was essentially a re-run of the controversy surrounding the first show of Lauryn's UK tour in London last weekend, when she was accused of diva-like behaviour. Ever anti-establishment, she showed no inclination to compromise and bow to pressure from the press, which she perceives as uniformly biased against her. It’s also in line with her reputation in the USA, as chronicled in the article Five Stages of Grief You Will Go Through Whilst Watching Lauryn Hill. Her personal life could be described as chaotic: a year ago she was serving the end of a prison sentence for $1.8 million of unpaid federal taxes. There has been little sign of new creative output to compare to 1998’s classic album Miseducation, though it should be noted that she’s been bringing up six children in that time, and focusings on her spiritual life (reportedly worshipping five times a week, guided by a religious guru). Nonetheless, in 2007 Kanye West lamented on his album Graduation: "Lauryn Hill say her heart was in Zion/I wish her heart still was in rhymin’.”

This gossip is in danger of obscuring Lauryn’s incredible charisma on stage. Her vocal agility is incredible, and this was one of the most high energy sets I've seen this year, above all for the rapping, though the dancing was also notable. The mid set acoustic section from her 2001 MTV Unplugged 2.0 album surely should have silenced any doubters about her musicality. Memories of  seeing her at Coachella in 2011 in the Californian desert sun inspired me to invest £50 in a ticket to this show, and I feel privileged to have been able to experience such talent close to home. Happily, at least from the balcony, there was no sign of the poor sound which is said to have marred her London appearance. This electric, energising music making gave absolutely no sense of a star on the wane, and I feel a sense of intolerance around the reception she's received in the UK in the past week.

At the heart of the debate is a contradiction: Lauryn is criticised for failing to produce new material, whilst being asked to faithfully reproduce her earlier hits. Around me, there were shouts of ‘We want originals’ from the crowd, and press reaction to the UK tour has described the arrangements as ‘bafflingly obscure’, ‘unrelenting soupy soul-jazz’, ‘shouty prog. rock’ and ‘Jungle rave’. The Fugee Set section was admittedly not wholly successful, fast paced to the point of aggression, and bereft of the subtlety she’d just shown in the preceding acoustic medley. Yet, she recovered from this with a triumphant closing Doo Wap from Miseducation, and the band and backing singers were tight throughout.  Acts such as Neutral Milk Hotel, have recently re-emerged as if no time had elapsed, faithful to their legendary albums' sound. Yet, over time people develop, musical trends change, and musicians are exposed to a new mix of cultural and emotional stimuli. It's unrealistic to expect every artist to preserve their work in aspic, and classical musicians commonly re-record pieces throughout their career to present new interpretations.

Lauryn’s musical creativity is still fertile, but has been focused on a re-imagination of her earlier songs rather than wholly new material. The results may be variable, but songs like the cabaret rendition of Everything is Everything are far from unsuccessful judged on their own terms. Expectations for this gig were unrealistic: Miseducation opens after all with Lauryn's absence from class. I’d like to think that there was an element of pantomime about the booing, and it would have been far more shocking had she arrived on stage on schedule. Rebellion against authority is part of her nature, and we should celebrate the those courageous enough to stand up for their beliefs. Her rendition of Black Rage, released in response to the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, shows her feisty spirit against injustice is undimmed. Lauryn became a female hip hop star at a time when discrimination was rife, and her uncompromising attitude has been necessary to overcome these barriers. Music should lead the way in tolerance, and there must be space for eccentric one-offs like Lauryn. Her live performing ability remains incredible, and I’d urge to ignore the distractions in the media and attend on of her quite unique shows open minded, so you can experience this flawed genius.

Set List
  • Soul Rebel (off stage)
  • Killing Me Softly Dub
  • Everything is Everything
  • Final Hour
  • Zion
  • Lost Ones
  • Ex-Factor
  • Black Rage
  • Unplugged Medley: Mr Intentional, Adam Lives in Theory, Jerusalem, Water, Turn Your Lights Down Low
  • Fugee Set: Only Have Eyes / Zealots, How Many Mics, FugeeLa, Ready or Not, Killing Me Softly
  • Jammin' / Master Blaster
  • Satisfy My Soul
  • Is This Love
  • Could You Be Loved
  • Bang Bang
  • Doo Wop (That Thing)

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