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Lauryn Hill - Higher Ground (S. Burlington, VT) - Sunday, December 19, 2010

20 December 2010

I had an epiphany at the show last night: Lauryn Hill is the Axl Rose of the hip-hop world. At first glance these two artists couldn’t appear more different; certainly their music and audience are at opposite ends of the spectrum. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. And I had plenty of time to think about it, more about that later.

First of all, their careers have had similar trajectories: both made little impact with their initial releases but went on to have massive success. Appetite For Destruction was out for a year before it started to get attention with the help of MTV, and went on to become one of the biggest selling rock records in history. Similarly, The Fugees‘ debut Blunted on Reality failed to make the charts at all but their sophomore effort, The Score, caught on and became one of the biggest hip-hop records of all time.

Both artists followed up their huge initial success with head-scratching acoustic albums and controversial public statements. G ‘N R Lies followed Appetite, and was a hodge-podge of live cuts and acoustic songs with little new material. The song “One In A Million” upset many people with its possibly racist and homophobic lyrics, which Rose insists were misinterpreted. After Lauryn Hill’s amazing debut solo record, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she put out a live album. MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 was a double album of Hill alone on stage, singing and playing acoustic guitar. This was a sharp left turn from her public persona at the time. Shortly after that, she chose her appearance at a Christmas benefit show at the Vatican to read a prepared statement condemning the Catholic Church, upsetting many Christian groups as well as her record company.

They both have frustratingly abbreviated discographies. In fact, they have each made just three original studio albums in the course of their careers (I am counting Use Your Illusion I & II as one record, since they were recorded and released simultaneously).

After a few short years, Axl Rose and Lauryn Hill both proceeded to drop out of sight completely, only to gradually come inching back into the spotlight. Both are notoriously reclusive and media-shy, almost never doing promotion or giving interviews. They were both endlessly rumored to be working on comeback records. In Axl’s case, he finally delivered: Chinese Democracy was released 17 years after their last album of new material. In Lauryn’s case, the fans are still waiting for her to follow up on her 1998 solo debut. There has been talk over the years of new songs and recordings, and even rumors of a music video shot in 2004, but so far nothing has surfaced.

And finally, massive success, adulation and public scrutiny have completely warped both artist’s sense of reality and perspective, much to the detriment of the fans that have supported each of them for so long. Axl Rose is known to be habitually late in starting G ‘N R shows, regularly making fans wait hours for the concert to start. And this brings us to my review.

The show was advertised to start at 9:00. When we got there we heard rumblings about the show not starting until 10:30. I hoped this was just scuttlebutt, since it was a Sunday night. As it turned out, Ms. Hill did not grace us with her presence until 11:45. There was no explanation, and no opening act. I could see and feel the energy drain from the room as the wait got longer and longer. By 10:30 some people started going to the ticket window to try to get their money back (I don’t know if they were successful). After two hours of standing around and waiting, her DJ came onstage and spun some tunes. Thirty minutes after that the band took the stage. I got the sense that even they did not know when (or if?) their bandleader would appear. They just stood there shuffling their feet for ten or fifteen minutes before Lauryn eventually showed up.

Ok, so finally we get to the music (consider this review as an allegory for the show itself). After all the drama, if she had actually come out and killed with her brilliance, all might have been forgiven. But alas, it was not to be. The band was a lesson in overkill: three guitarists, three keyboardists, three backup singers, bass, drums and DJ. The result? It was hard to hear much of anything. To make matters worse, the songs were sped up to the point of rendering them almost unrecognizable. It took me half the opening song to realize it was “Lost Ones”. There was no groove; it was so fast you couldn’t even dance to it. Needless to say we did not make it through the whole set.

What makes the whole debacle even worse was the price tag- tickets were $60! That’s a lot for a small club show in northern Vermont, and for that kind of money I expected a certain level of professionalism that was sadly absent. To put it in perspective, I saw living legend Ray Davies perform at the same venue two years ago for $50, and that was one of the best shows I have ever witnessed.