Lauryn Hill Kills Them Softly on Stage

Grammy Winner Mixes Up the Hits During Live Show

Universal Amphitheater, Los Angeles, March 5, 1999

Lauryn Hill brought the improvisational quality of her solo debut to the stage of L.A.'s Universal Amphitheater Friday night as she chatted to the packed house, incited a good-natured band-vs.-DJ feud and sang along to freestyle, jamming versions of her own hits and Fugees' "classics."

It was the first of three sold-out shows at the 6,251-seat venue, and one of the first performances following Hill's sweep of the Grammys for her solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The audience -- a wide mix of ages, ethnicities and styles -- was pumped up and more than ready to throw their hands in the air and sing the "Doo Wop (That Thing)." But Hill challenged them by delivering reworked versions of her own songs, and plenty of unexpected sonic diversions -- from her drummer banging out a furious solo on upside-down, plastic buckets to some a cappella harmonizing by her backup singers.

Hill hit the stage wearing a long, orange and white wrap/skirt, a white T-shirt and a Levi's jacket (the show was sponsored by the clothing company.) The petite singer's infamous dreads were covered by a large, white knit cap, and her thin wrists adorned with a multitude of bangles. She was surrounded by fifteen performers (who also wore a plethora of Levi's jeans, jackets and skirts), a group that included two DJs, three horn players, a percussionist and organ player, as well as a core set-up of drums, bass, guitars and backup singers.

With a stained-glass window effect projected on a backdrop, she started with a highly spiritual rendition of "Ex-Factor," an otherwise sad song about a relationship gone sour. It was a mellow set starter, especially after opening act Outkast had riled the audience with a hard-hitting and tight set. She infused following songs like "Hurts So Bad" and "Forgive Them Father" with dubby, reggae breaks, impromptu lyrical changes and some experimental instrumentation.

The younger audience members seemed initially taken aback by the band's unfaithful versions of the songs, like the gospel quality of the opening number and the freestyling vocals. This type of improvisation was a callback to the Seventies, a time when groups like Funkadelic or artists like Stevie Wonder actually jammed free-form, but now most rappers (even supposed freestylers) and bands stick to the same safe formula and familiar songs that got them on the radio. But Hill's risky approach paid off.

The impressive execution of the songs and Hill's charisma kept the interest level high. A medley of Fugees hits -- "Ready or Not," "Fu-Gee-La" -- pumped the audience mid-set, Hill stalking the stage and eventually shedding her long skirt to expose a pair of cuffed jeans (They weren't Levi's.) She played off of fellow MC Abe Mola McMullen's "uh huh, uh huhs," then hit vocal harmonies with the back-up singers (one a grade-school friend of Hill's) that were pure and often transcendent. Hill's voice often proved the roughest of the four singers, but her passionate delivery of the soulful lyrics made each of her well-written songs soar.

Hill played out her own battles between old-school Seventies soul and Nineties DJ culture with a battle between her band and two DJs. Asking the audience to applaud for the winning songs, the band played bits of classic hits like the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" (Hill's voice hitting those impossible, early-Michael highs) and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," while DJs shot back with spins of Jay Z's "Can I Get a ..." and Puffy's "All About the Benjamins." Finally, she announced that it was time to bring the two together and meet somewhere in between, and she launched into her own number "Every Ghetto, Every City." They closed the set with a short version of "Doo Wop (That Thing)," with the audience singing so loud it almost eclipsed Hill.

The encore consisted of the Fugees' cover of Roberta Flack's 1973 hit "Killing Me Softly," Hill's voice hitting tearful, emotional crescendos. But perhaps the most pointed moment was when Hill sang "Superstar," a musical commentary about all the unoriginal artists on the scene today. "Everything you drop is so tired," she sang, "Music is supposed to inspire, how come we ain't getting no higher?" With this attitude, the singer challenged her audience, never underestimating their taste for adventure. The show ended with a sense of mutual respect, Hill's fans assured that the singer believed in them as much as they believed in her.