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Lauryn Hill @ The Riverside Theater

Feb. 4, 2017

Feb. 5, 2017
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Photos courtesy Melissa Miller
Generally speaking, fans will tolerate a lot. They can look past bad albums, bizarre behavior and even questionable political views. One thing they won't forgive, however, is canceled concerts, something Lauryn Hill has made her unfortunate calling card over the last decade or so. Eccentricities are one thing, but when you leave a thousands of fans in the lurch, it becomes personal. Just this week Lauryn Hill affirmed her reputation as a less than considerate performer by showing up three hours late for a show in Pittsburgh. It's a shame that behavior has come to define her, though, because as Hill demonstrated Saturday night at her first show in Milwaukee in 15 years, the narrative around her could just as easily be that she's still a tremendous talent and an incredibly generous performer.

Not that her Riverside Theater performance was always smooth. Hill took the stage after a more than half-hour buildup from first her DJ and then her 11-piece band, who seemed just as uncertain about when she might appear as the crowd was. And the show's first half hour was a hot, flabby mess, with her band fumbling through songs that never seemed to end. Hill later blamed the venue's sound, but the real problem was bloat. All the bluster was just too much. Hill came up during an era of hip-hop defined by its efficiency and minimalism, but Hill's band was maximalist to the extreme. At times they sounded like G.E. Smith rounded up his old Saturday Night Live crew to jam with the Showtime at the Apollo House band, occasionally while a Blues Brothers revue practiced in the room next door.
Yet even when the music was sloppy, she gave it her all. Hill wailed herself breathless, rapped in triple time and danced with her backup singers, all while perpetually directing and redirecting her band. And eventually, as if through sheer force of will, things came together. It must have been around the coordinated opening beat drop of “Fu-Gee-La,” the set's most exhilarating rearrangement, that the show found its grove. From there the hits started coming one after another, in crisper, tighter presentations than the keyboard pileups that came before.

Hill nailed “Ready Or Not” and “Killing Me Softly,” then moved on to covers—a couple Sade tracks, a Bob Marley standard (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and a lovingly lived-in rendition of Frank Valli's “Can't Take My Eyes Off You.” The show's loose vibe began working in her favor. When somebody in the crowd requested her D'Angelo collaboration “Nothing Even Matters,” she indulged them, teaching it to her band on the spot. By the time the night ended with an especially celebratory rendition of “Doo Wop (That Thing),” it was easy to forget the whole show hadn't always been so glorious.

These are the concerts you remember the most, the ones that flirt with failure in search of transcendence. Even during the night's clumsier moments (maybe even especially during the clumsier moments), watching her navigate the many possibilities her show presented offered some insight into why Hill still hasn't gotten around to recording a proper follow-up to her 1998 masterpiece The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. She suffers from too much ambition, not enough discipline. There are worse problems to have. D'Angelo seemed to be in the same place, too, but he pulled it together and returned with an incredible comeback album just when we needed it the most. It's not unthinkable that Hill could do the same.

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