14 January, 2016

Ms. Lauryn Hill Breaks It Down in Brooklyn

"Yo, I'll be in NYC Jan 2nd through the 5th. Will you be around?"

"I should be around during then
"going to lauryn hill concert on 1/4 night tho
"WANNA COME?"

So it began simply enough. Just over a week later, I found myself trudging through Brooklyn in sub-freezing temperatures, with a windchill of -14°F, on my way to the concert. I made my way into Brooklyn Bowl, decided to skip the interminable-looking coat check line, and walked out into a dance floor that was already full with fans hoping to get close to the stage. After apologizing my way nearly to the front of the crowd, I finally found my friends. I dropped my giant nomadic-Omari bag on the floor, piled my heavy winter coat on top of it, and waited for the concert to start.

And waited.

And waited.

It was nearly an hour later when the opener, a DJ who was also a member of the band, came on stage. Despite the disappointing start to the evening, the DJ played all the right tunes to get the crowd hyped up and in a good mood, as we sang and chanted along to a bunch of classic songs.
A short while later, the rest of the band made an entrance, sat down, and started to play. I didn't realize it at the time, but the concert went by sections, starting with pieces off Lauryn's MTV Unplugged album, continuing into Miseducation, and concluding with songs from A Tribute to Nina Simone, all interspersed with singles from throughout her career.

For me, the "Unplugged" section came and went. The energy level started off fairly tame, and the production suffered from technical issues — instruments not in the monitors, Lauryn's acoustic guitars not getting any amplification at all, and so on. A rocky start.
At the end of the first section, most of the chairs were removed from the stage, including what I can only describe as Lauryn's throne. Fitting, of course, because Lauryn was clearly the Empress of the stage, and she ruled it with an iron fist.

This is when the magic began.

Part of the brilliance of Ms. Lauryn Hill is that she has a vision of how the performance should be, and through some combination of planning, improvisation, play-calling, and pure musical virtuosity, the concert becomes a manifestation of that vision.
The concert incorporated a lot of dancing on-stage. During instrumental interludes, Lauryn would often strut around the stage with her wireless mic, shaking her body to the beat, mopping her brow with a small towel, and quite visibly enjoying herself.

The scene reminded me of watching bands sweat in the sunshine atop speaker-laden flatbed 18-wheelers, dabbing themselves with already-dripping-wet towels while they played Carnival in Trinidad.

At one point she brought out a dancer who tore up the floor, arms akimbo, moving this way and that. When the dance slowed down, Lauryn jumped in and the two started trading dance moves. It was obvious that this concert was about culture and heritage just as much as it was about music.
She also had a plan for the support staff. She eventually worked out the issues with the sound folks on the fly, and she'd clearly had direct input on the visual theme as well. The band was constantly back-lit during the performance with strong, vibrant primary and secondary colors.

The spotlights came up for the dancer, and when they stayed on afterward, Lauryn pointed emphatically at the rear lights and admonished the person controlling the lights — "Come on. I told you. I feel like I'm on an examination table up here." I presume she wanted to feel like she was making music with Brooklyn, not just for us.
The best part, though, was her plan for the music. Or, more accurately, her plans. My most enjoyable moments throughout the concert were when she'd change up the musical arrangement for a familiar song as the band was playing.

She'd wave her hand and the horns would quiet down. "Where's my keys?", she'd ask, and there they'd be. Hearing multiple different variations, live and on the gallop, of songs that I had grown up with blew my mind. Hearing the arrangements shift effortlessly from bass-and-guitar-heavy jam, to stripped-down vocal harmony, to blaring-horns anthem was euphoric.
The waves of euphoria came more and more frequently as the concert continued. I remember moments when I realized that my voice was getting tired and raspy. That if I kept shouting my lungs out, I wouldn't have much of a voice left afterwards. And then the next song would come on, I'd think "OH NO THEY DIDN'T!", and I'd throw caution to the wind once more. Forward the light brigade.
After the band played their last song, nearly 3 continuous hours after their delayed start, we gave an already-standing ovation, and Lauryn returned to the stage to thank us for being present. Then, in an unusual twist, she mentioned that it was her little girl's birthday. After some encouragement her son Zion (subject of Lauryn's song "To Zion") brought his sister out on stage, and we all sang happy birthday.

Then she paused for a moment.

She turned to her son. "Why you still out here? You wanna do somethin'?" Turns out he did. Lauryn had the DJ cue up a phat beat, and Zion laid down an admittedly faltering and short-lived rap as an encore. Even so, it reinforced the sense of family and heritage that had permeated the evening.

And that was that. If you ever have a chance to see Ms. Lauryn Hill in concert, she's worth the wait.

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