Monday, January 17, 2011

Concert Review | Ms. Lauryn Hill at The Pageant in Saint Louis

Photo credit: Santiago Felipe/Village Voice

"And every chorus was written for us to recite/ Beautiful melodies of devotion every night..."

Those lines, lyrics taken from the Ms. Lauryn Hill's rap on "Turn Your Lights Down Low," (a "duet" with the late Bob Marley) carry new meaning today, after seeing her performance last night at The Pageant.

Yesterday, Jason wrote about waiting for artists to take the stage in his review of Friday's Grace Potter and The Nocturnals show. His words also carry new meaning after last night's Ms. Lauryn Hill performance.

I bought my tickets for Hill's show back in December, the second they went on sale. I thought it would sell out in mere minutes. Turns out, I hadn't been reading the reviews online. Reported diva antics: late starts, no-shows, crowd heckling. You know, the sort of trifecta that persuades avid fans to stay home versus risk disappointment from their favorite volatile artist, otherwise frozen in perfection in memories. However, that dilemma did not remotely enter my mind; with a few clicks, I procured two balcony seats (a splurge, even!) for what I considered might be one of my only chances to see Ms. Lauryn Hill live.

The doors for The Pageant opened at 9:00 PM. I left my house at 9:45, fully aware that I'd still be waiting a long while for Hill to take the stage after I arrived at the venue. Turns out, high-heeled boots and an empty seat with my name on it couldn't lure me away from the spontaneous dance party my friends and I started in an empty balcony corner. Sorry, Petty, the waiting was not the hardest part. Hill's DJ played an endless stream of hot jamz to liven up the crowd: Snoop, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige, Naughty By Nature. I have never experienced a vibe at The Pageant quite like the one last night; looking back, it seems like a carefully concocted powder keg.

Hill took the stage at 11:52 PM. The Pageant was still packed to the gills, the crowd was ready to erupt, chanting, "Lau-ryn! Lau-ryn! Lau-ryn!" Even though the show was well-publicized around town (both positively and negatively), I couldn't help but feel as though I was a member of a secret society, or I just became my date's "plus one" to an invite-only party. I can't say for certain why Hill prefers to take the stage so late, but maybe, just maybe, it's to weed out the tepid believers and the Hatorade drinkers. After all, as she recently told a New York audience, she's "worth the wait." And if you held your own last night through the figurative staring contest with Ms. Lauryn Hill, you came out a winner. She was worth every penny of my ticket's cost, every minute of my time.

The lady came out on stage like a barrel from a gun. She topped off a rather masculine pants-and-matching-vest get-up with a feminine fur stole, just another symbol of her complex demeanor. She often acknowledged her adoring crowd by working "Saint Louis" into her lyrics as she shimmed and slid - James Brown style - across the stage. Her frenzied dancing often evolved into bodily spasms, conquering old songs done in new ways, with her twelve person army of musicians and back-up singers behind her. And, no matter how fired up Ms. Lauryn Hill got, she for damn sure wasn't going to drop that fur stole.

Hill coursed through favorites off of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and from The Fugees' catalog. While she avoided her (fabulous) reworking of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" off Miseducation, she did provide her version of The Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes For You." The balcony cleared out as the show traveled into Monday, but those who left early missed the 1-2-3-4-5 packed punch of "Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not," "Killing Me Softly," and the two encore numbers, "Turn Your Lights Down Low" and "Doo Wop (That Thing)." Together, we all stood in devotion and recited those beautiful melodies and choruses. And when I say "recited," I really mean shouted.

I realize that I am not saying anything unique when I tell you that Miseducation is a seminal album in my life. I wore that CD out during my first year of college. Away from home, surrounded by burgeoning friendships but still very much alone, that album became the soundtrack of my independence, dare I say, paralleling Hill's escape from the turmoil within The Fugees, her solo debut, motherhood... No, I take it back. I don't dare say that.

What I do know is this: last night, I placed a bet and won. For those who stayed away to avoid potential disappointment missed the opportunity to watch Hill burst - gristle and funk and humanity flying everywhere - before their very eyes. Miseducation, no matter how well that album reveals Hill's giftedness, cannot convey the brilliance of her raw and burning presence, exposed from her curtain of controversy and rescued from fans who have mentally frozen her in perfection.

If you are debating, if you're just not sure if you want the ticket, stop. Go see her. She is absolutely worth the wait.

Setlist [courtesy of A to Z]:
"Forever Loving Jah" (Bob Marley cover)
"Lost Ones"
"When It Hurts So Bad"
"Ex-Factor"
"Final Hour"
"How Many Mics" (Fugees)
"I Only Have Eyes For You" (The Flamingos cover)
"Fu-Gee-La" (Fugees)
"Ready or Not" (Fugees)
"Killing Me Softly"

Encore:
"Turn Your Lights Down Low"
"Doo Wop (That Thing)"