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While awaiting the start of the Lauryn Hill appearance at the Mammoth Events Center on February 27, I couldn't help but imagine her backstage thinking, "I won five Grammy awards last Tuesday--so what the hell am I doing in this shithole?" Bill Graham Presents/Chuck Morris Presents may have just purchased Mammoth for over a million bucks (thanks in large part to the financial muscle of SFX Entertainment, the promotions behemoth that owns the firm), but the promised revamping of the venue has yet to take place--and given everything that needs to be done, even a thermonuclear bomb might well be too weak for the job. It's presently the worst performance space in the solar system, with the possible exception of one really bad spot on Uranus.
Given the severity of this handicap, Hill would have been perfectly within her rights to phone in the concert and save her energy for a room where she actually had a fighting chance of sounding her finest. Instead, she worked hard for her money and came closer than anyone could have expected to living up to the hype with which she's been showered of late. The gig's quality confirmed that Hill is just the kind of creative synthesist needed to chip away at the indifference and veiled racism too often directed at hip-hop and R&B artists by the mainstream media.
Not that the show was perfect. Its length--an hour and forty-five minutes from when the lights went down to the end of the encore--seemed adequate on the surface, but the turn was loaded with filler. Hill was preceded to the stage by Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," which was played in its entirety, and she sang her first tune, a gospel ditty about loving Jesus and keeping your eye on the sparrow (a reference to Baretta?), from the wings. Then, after the first forty minutes or so, Hill took a break while a pair of DJs held a turntablist tag-team match and her drummer offered not one, not two, but three extended solos. In addition, there was a lengthy musician-introduction sequence, as well as a band-versus-DJ battle that, fortunately, became an unexpected highlight. Hill and her crew did justice to a handful of old-school favorites (including the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," complete with rewritten lyrics that allowed for crowd-pleasing Denver mentions) before credibly covering, of all things, Jay-Z's Annie-friendly "Hard Knock Life." Better yet, the bringing together of DJ beats and live sounds at the scrap's end subtly argued that inclusion is far more preferable than musical segregation.
How much of this was heard by the capacity crowd at Mammoth is tough to gauge. The venue's sonics vary from place to place within it, but because of the number of bodies jammed into the (too few) areas with decent sight lines, moving around was difficult. From my position, directly opposite the stage near the soundboard, I could pick up the contributions of a mere handful of the seventeen or so players who accompanied Hill. The guitars, keyboards and percussion devices were inaudible for the most part, the horns and background vocalists were regularly buried, and Hill's lyrics were all but unintelligible; her voice was fairly clear, but her words weren't. By contrast, the bass was easily twice as loud as it should have been, the low-end notes smothering pretty much everything in their path. As a result, some of Hill's less distinctive compositions--especially those of a slower, sultrier stripe--tended to blend together, preventing all but the most passionate fans from knowing when "Ex-Factor" concluded and "When It Hurts So Bad" began. But even during these moments, Hill was able to hold the audience via impassioned singing, a compelling stage presence and an air of confidence that was undeniable. She lit a fire under an extended, reggae-inflected "Lost Ones," played earth mother throughout "To Zion," made the most of the breakthrough smash "Doo Wop (That Thing)" and sent a message to the Fugees with "Killing Me Softly" that she doesn't need anyone to prop her up. She can stand on her own very well, thank you.
Predictably, the success of Hill's debut disc, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has had a polarizing effect. Reviewers at major newspapers and magazines who had previously covered hip-hop as an extension of the crime beat have jumped on her bandwagon: Time recently put her on its cover to advertise a we-discover-rap primer that arrived about twenty years later than it should have, and many critics who see the Dave Matthews Band as cutting-edge included her LP on their otherwise lily-white top-ten lists in a fruitless attempt to seem current. In the meantime, many alternative scribes have attempted to stir up a backlash against her. For instance, a writer at the San Francisco Weekly (a sister publication of Westword) printed a satire of the music business in which Miseducation was dismissed as a collection of "limp hip-hop and Stevie Wonder knock-offs."
Such sneering overlooks the importance of Hill's contributions, even though she does indeed have a lot in common with Wonder, whose "Sir Duke" she referenced at Mammoth. Wonder's Grammy wins during the Seventies brought greater attention to the golden age of Seventies soul just as Hill's have done for Nineties hip-hop. Furthermore, her ability to intermingle soul, hip-hop, reggae and pop without diminishing any of them is helping to break down the barriers that keep too many people from appreciating the various styles. Sure, it's embarrassing when lunkheads who wouldn't know Eric B. & Rakim from Shareef Abdur-Rahim (who plays for the Vancouver Grizzlies, by the way) use Hill to pretend that they liked the music all along. But if their posturing brings more attention to artists who deserve it, that's not such a bad thing. Hill is both a popularizer and a damn fine performer, as her Mammoth visit demonstrated--and for that, she deserves thanks and praise. Amen.