Every time Lauryn Hill is booked to play a gig, one question arises: will she show? And if she does, how late will she be? To her fans, just the virtue of her turning up seems enough to justify the ticket price. Yet when she does show and she’s feeling the performance, the result is often mesmerically energetic, as she hurtles through double-speed renditions of her Miseducation hits, as if barely suppressing an appetite large enough to devour her own back catalogue, and to devour the audience and her own precision-commanded band in the process. In these moments, we see testament to Hill’s much-lauded status as one of hip-hop’s foremost lyricists and one of contemporary soul’s most passionate vocalists.
So, on the Pyramid stage, 10 minutes after the scheduled start, there was a palpable nervous energy that rippled through the gigantic crowd. Hill’s tour DJ valiantly spun the classic pre-gig fillers: Drop It Like It’s Hot, et al but the audience was beginning to reckon with another disappointment. Happily, though, five minutes later and Hill appeared resplendent and imperiously hatted in black, backed by three singers and a five–piece band.
Currently winding up a 20th anniversary tour in celebration of her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Hill’s band were a well-oiled machine, responding with all the speed and efficiency of fearful children to their leader’s sharp hand signals and reprimands at the end of each song.
Opening with the anthemic Lost Ones, Hill’s vocals were breathless and somewhat patchy, leaving the bulk of the singing to her harmonising backing trio. Sadly, Hill’s heavy lean on the band continued throughout her 60-minute set, including a gospel-drenched version of Superstar, a meandering doo wop Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and a bouncy reggae Forgive Them Father.
In fact, it felt as if Hill had played these songs so many times in the last two decades that she couldn’t bear to play them as recorded any longer. This is not necessarily a bad thing – referencing the jazz and James Brown traditions of the perpetual live rework – yet with songs so distinct and recognisable as those on the much-loved Miseducation, it was an unnecessary extravagance to remix each number.
The crowd felt it too, with the pre-recorded album skits played out between songs and the extended breakdowns into a gospel call-and-response on Forgive Them Father and a walking bass Can’t Take My Eyes Off You leading people to talk among themselves or even wander off. Perhaps most painfully, her biggest hit, Doo Wop, was left to the backing singers, while Hill hurtled through her verses, shouting sections of the rap rather than employing her signature rap-singing flow.
It was only on the Fugees’ classic, Killing Me Softly With His Song, which opened with a solo vocal, that a glimpse of Hill’s true talent shone through. Notwithstanding the no-show controversies, her battles with the Internal Revenue Service in the US and even recent allegations of plagiarism, here her voice dug deep within to provide gossamer-light runs over the embellished chords. Finally, the audience were right there with her and Hill ended on that most coveted of phenomena: the Glastonbury singalong to the final chorus.