In a performance that lasted nearly two hours and included her (remixed) solo material, Fugees songs and covers of Sade, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, Ms. Lauryn Hill put in an “Austin City Limits” taping for the ages at ACL Live on Saturday night. Her voice was deep, powerful and loaded with wrenching emotion. She was musically adventurous, emotionally raw and fully committed. She was a demanding, but occasionally gracious, band leader of her 12-piece backing crew, and in an immersive performance, she left everything on the stage.
The pre-show started roughly 30 minutes late (which, let’s be honest, in hip-hop is on time) and it opened with DJ Rampage, her hype man, prepping the crowd with a 30 minute set of ’90s hip-hop, reggae and R&B. Hill entered close to 9 p.m., to wild applause and took a seat at a small couch set center stage, a table holding upwards of a dozen flickering candles at her side. “I love you too,” she told the cheering crowd before opening with “Conformed to Love,” an unreleased song that she’s been playing live for a decade. Playing an acoustic guitar, Hill led her band through an emotionally charged but challenging arrangement. As it closed and the crowd cheered, she wiped her face with a black handkerchief. Was she moved to tears? She segued into a couple densely arranged versions of tracks from her 2002 MTV Unplugged album. The crowd was attentive and responsive, but it was an odd beginning, loaded with what is arguably some of her least accessible material.
Then she played a gorgeous cover of Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” with subdued accompaniment that allowed her vocals to shine, reminding us Ms. Lauryn Hill possesses one of the most phenomenal voices of our time. The set picked up. She delivered a stunning rendition of “Mystery of Iniquity” with her body moving in waves as the hook, “We all fall down,” built into a climatic refrain that brought her to her feet.
The set wasn’t necessarily, broken into movements, but a set change signaled a different vibe. The couch and table were moved off stage and Hill moved into the most anticipated section of her performance, songs from her 1998 classic album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” Hill no longer plays the original versions of these songs, most likely due to a 2001 settlement in a lawsuit over production and writing credits brought by Hill’s collaborators on the Grammy-award winning album. Set closer “Doo Wop (That Thing)” was the only song that remained largely true to the original arrangement. For many fans who long to revisit that moment in time with crucial songs that changed their lives, the absent nostalgia was understandably disappointing.
But the Fugees were the greatest cover band of all time, largely because of Hill’s talent for taking incredible source material and re-imagining it as something better. Laced with a stormy pulse and an accelerated tempo, “Ex-Factor” was largely unrecognizable at first, but the raw pain in one of the world’s best break up songs was as powerful as ever. She spun the hook, “Why won’t you live for me, live for me,” into an incantation as she threw her body into the beats and coaxed cacophony from her band. Similarly, “Lost Ones” found her vibing with her trio of back up singers in an extended riff on the reggae hook “You might win some, but you really lost one” that was fantastic.
But at times, more than nostalgia was lost. “Final Hour” was sped to such a breakneck pace that lyrics like “about to change the focus from the richest to the brokest,” that feel as vitally important today as they did when they were recorded, were lost in a jumble of sound.
Still the crowd stayed with her.
When she moved into the Fugees section of the set the energy in the room skyrocketed from ecstatic to rapturous. She adapted the lyric “She love me like no other before” to “Austin, I love you like no other before,” and sure, she does that for all the cities, but the crowd ate it up. “Ready or Not” was so explosive that the her fans cheered for a solid three minutes while Hill radiantly reveled in the rush of performance.
Her Bob Marley covers “Jammin’,” “Is This Love” and “Could You Be Loved” were all wonderful but her cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” was the most revelatory moment of the night. Hill’s deep voice and activist lyricism alongside the troubled arc of her career, make her uniquely suited to cover Simone. She’s stutter started so many times that even the most die-hard fans were reluctant to call it a comeback when the collection “Nina Revisited,” released earlier this year, included five tracks from Hill. But at ACL Live on Saturday night she seemed invigorated, living and breathing the music she sang with rediscovered joy.
Never was this more evident than as she sang the chorus “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me and I’m feeling good” with so much heart it was impossible not to believe her. At one point in the song, she took an extended hold on the word “freedom,” her voice ringing loud and long like a declaration of from the deepest part of her soul. In that moment it felt she was truly, triumphantly shedding whatever demons that have plagued her, clearing way for her artistic vision to shine through, bright and proud. God-willing that feeling will endure.
If Hill brings half the energy to her Fun Fun Fun Fest set (and half the material) her Sunday closing set will blow Austin away.