For a few minutes after she took the stage at Brooklyn’s Wingate Park on Monday night, it was possible to mistake Lauryn Hill for Sly Stone. Not just because she was two hours late, leading the MC (and Brooklyn borough president) Marty Markowitz to offer constant, nervous reassurances that she was on her way. Nor because her outfit – sleeveless tasselled red leather jacket with pink and blue plaid baggy pants, offset with giant triangle earrings, numerous necklaces, bangles, and an enormous black heart-shaped ring – recalled the glory days of early-1970s fashion. There was also a familiar jerkiness to her movements, a spasmodic energy that spoke of eccentricity and exile.
Hill has become a mysterious figure in the 10 years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sold millions of copies. In the latest odd, sad story about her, the rapper Wyclef Jean blames her egotism for undermining the reunion of their old group, the Fugees. But this show, her first extended New York performance in years, also referenced the 1970s in more positive ways. It turns out that Lauryn Hill has been working with a funk band that’s equal parts Family Stone, Fela Kuti, and James Brown and Bob Marley at their most rock-friendly. They assaulted an unsuspecting open-air audience, nearly 10,000 strong, with high-energy, 10-minute jams that mixed up new and old material with Marley and Nina Simone covers – often within a single song.
Hill sounded ragged – she blamed European touring – but somehow that fitted the aggressive, ramshackle mood of the music perfectly. With three drummers and a horn section on stage, her voice often blended into a wall of sound as she rapped at double speed and constantly drove the musicians forward with barked instructions and gesticulations.
There were genuinely affecting versions of slower classics such as “Ex-Factor” and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”, and the band’s ability to transition back and forth from funk to reggae was impressive, but the highlights were the heaviest moments. Driven by intense guitar riffs and bombastic drums, “Fugee-La” and “Everything is Everything” could have been played by Led Zeppelin. When she prefaced “Doo Wop (That Thing)” with a version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” it sounded like a question for the audience. The answer is still unclear, but there does appear to be hope for Lauryn Hill.