Saturday night brought on many exciting and respectable acts. From the much-anticipated headliner Jack White, to excellent sets from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Flaming Lips, an argument could be made that it was the best block of performances of the entire festival. However, in the interest of honesty, I have to say that there is only one artist that I feel compelled to specifically address: Ms. Lauryn Hill. Late as ever, she descended upon an audience filled with questions: Would she even show? If so, will she even properly finish her set? Why the “Ms.?” These questions aren’t exactly unmerited. Hill is known for her distaste for the music industry and erratic live performances. Her thirty-minute tardiness wasn’t some egomaniacal antic, though. Rather, the set before her played ten minutes over, giving her a paltry twenty-minutes for set up
In contrast to the countless shows half-squandered by lackluster, time-crunched sound checks, Lauryn Hill’s band adhered to their own meticulous methods. Nearly half an hour was devoted to the band jamming, working the audience, and testing levels. Next, the three back-up singers came out and made sure their blend was properly honored by the right balance. Finally, the magic Ms. came out and demonstrated the critical value of a thorough soundcheck. Tearing into virtuosic rap-laden reggae/funk versions of old songs, her sound was unique and unparalleled. Her selections were mostly re-envisioned versions of songs from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, with some Fugees songs to spare (rapping Wyclef and Pras’ verses, naturally). Hill’s use of good old-fashioned back up singers, devoid of any vocal backing tracks, made me wonder why we accept anything less– why we often praise people for singing or rapping most of their set, leaving the rest to a pre-recorded track as a safety net.
At a festival where EDM often served as the new jam-band (that’s no slight to most acts; dark-electronica duo Darkside offered an innovative late-night set), a woman delivering all of her words from her mouth and her mouth only was a welcome display. It’s also safe to say that Lauryn Hill put on the best rap performance at Bonnaroo: not only did she spit rapid-fire flow right through the center of a live band, halfway through she performed a self-played acoustic set alternating between spoken word-influenced rap and her signature neo-soul riffs. She also managed to blow Pharrell’s hat game out of the water in one fell swoop.
At a festival with no female headliners and only three females gracing the mainstage (shoutout to Janelle Monae, Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens, and Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Susan Tedeschi) in afternoon slots, it was hard not to feel a little disappointed in the lineup’s lack of female artists (of which there are many to choose from). But there was solace to be found in the fact that Lauryn Hill made better than good on her performance. By taking the time she needed to get her sound right and delivering some of the most precise vocals I’ve ever heard live, the one-time Fugees member showed how to do a festival act right. Hill is one of the best female vocalists we’ve got today. Hopefully her performance made people think twice about the level of quality we mosh, bob, and sing along to at these kinds of shindigs. On her 2002 recording of “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0,” Hill mused on the idea that “fantasy is what people want, but reality is what we need.” Sure enough, she demonstrated that the real thing is not only necessary, but worth more than any backing track.