Let’s talk about Ms. Lauryn Hill’s polarising Bluesfest set

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The Ms. Lauryn Hill of 2018 is not the Lauryn Hill of 1998. Some people can't handle that.

If you’re not a Ms. Lauryn Hill fan but took your curious mind to Bluesfest’s Mojo stage last night to catch her headline set, I feel a bit bad for you. You weren’t to know what was coming.

But if you are a fan, and you’re bitter about the performance the hip hop legend turned on, then I just don’t know what you were expecting.

And, judging by the talk at the festival and on social media, as well as the huge number of people who fled the tent during her set, there are plenty of you.

Firstly, she was always going to be late. That’s just what she does. It’s annoying, particularly at the end of a very long day when our legs are sore and we could be off seeing other acts or beating the traffic home. In the scheme of things, a 32 minute wait for Ms. Lauryn Hill - which is what we endured - isn’t too bad, especially when it’s expected.

Ms. Lauryn Hill and band gave us a thrilling, challenging, exciting, aggressive, beautiful and unpredictable show

Probably the biggest complaint I’ve heard was that she kept addressing the crowd as “Brisbane”. It’s astounding that something this innocuous - Brisbane is just 150km up the road from Bluesfest - is enough to ruin anyone’s experience of a show.

Would you have been happy if she stuck to Byron Bay (15km down the road) or do we need her to address us as Tyagarah?

Annoyances aside, what it all must come down to in the end is the performance.

Ms. Lauryn Hill and band gave us a thrilling, challenging, exciting, aggressive, beautiful and unpredictable show that showed us that the Ms. Lauryn Hill of 2018 is not the Lauryn Hill of 1998.

Hill came out full of energy, singing the hell out of a lively ‘Everything Is Everything’ from her 1998 classic The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill.

From that same record she then laid down a furious ‘Final Hour’, and an evil version of ‘Lost Ones’ that felt like an absolute assault. These were not delivered in the same way that a 21-year-old Hill presented them 20 years ago. They were more aggressive, more unhinged and weirder than what we’re used to.

The same can be said for the Fugees classics she dropped towards the set’s end. After absolutely destroying the mic with a killer version of ‘How Many Mics’, a warped version of ‘Fu-Gee-La’ threatened to send those of us who’ve stuck with Hill into a frenzy.

‘Ready Or Not’ finished the job. Sure, it didn't sound like it did on The Score, but we sung it like we have for the past 22 years. While her singing voice faltered on occasion, there were moments during the verses of ‘Killing Me Softly’ where it felt like we were seeing the 19 year old Lauryn Hill again. Its beauty was enough to give you chills.

This whole time, Hill’s band worked their way through eye-wateringly complex re-arrangements of these songs, seemingly stopping and starting at Hill’s beck and call. While her three backing singers delivered some of the greatest harmonies you’ll ever hear.

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Ms. Lauryn Hill at Bluesfest 2018. Photo by Michael Mackenzie.

Hill sometimes seemed a little loose, but her supporting cast were consistently tight. This combination made for a fascinating musical experience.

I won’t claim that Ms. Lauryn Hill’s set was life-affirming. Hell, it wasn’t even the best set of the day. It didn’t pack the same power as Patti Smith’s triumphant show last year, or even Erykah Badu (who was also late) in 2014. But the enormous negative sentiment around her set is troubling.

If an audience won’t allow an artist who is over 25 years into their career to evolve and adapt their show, what’s the point?

Perhaps it's a matter of perspective. Some people aren’t satisfied unless they’re presented a carbon copy of what they’ve heard on record through their life. But an artist is not a jukebox, and their approaches will change as their lives move on.

Ms. Lauryn Hill’s Bluesfest set reminded me of another big main stage headline slot from Bluesfest past. When Bob Dylan came on stage to headline the 2011 festival at Belongil Fields, people were spilling out of the tent. By the time he was halfway through, you could easily find yourself a pretty prime spot. Dylan doesn't try and be the same artist he once was, neither does Hill, and people are uncomfortable with that.

People complained then and they’ll complain now. That’s fine. But, as a fan of Ms. Lauryn Hill, I was satisfied with what she gave us and excited to see one of our era’s greatest artists at this very interesting stage of her career.

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