|Photo: Nomfundo Engler|
She enters stage left, a whirl of arms. Conducting the band from the outset. Directing the sound. More voice! More guitar! More band! Can you hear us? Can you hear me? Andy, can we turn me up? Over an uptempo wall of sound devoid of nuance and now seasoned with feedback. The stage manager scurries onstage, fiddles with her bodypack. House lights! Cape Town! South Africa! Make some noise! Are you ready to give it up for unity? Can you hear us?
Welcome to the Lauryn Hill show. It's a half-hour off midnight at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, this is the headline act, and it's going to be a rough ride.
Things aren't helped by Ms Hill's reputation. If you believed everything you heard, she was going to be tardy, high, mad, unprofessional, rude and ultimately wack. So the audience are here ready for a train wreck, half a foot already out the door in case she does blow. They've already got their money's worth tonight. Hugh Masekela's Makeba tribute, Nouvelle Vague, Marcus Miller, Pharaohe Monch... Zahara could do no wrong before a bewitched fanbase utterly in thrall to her instant folk classics, the statuesque, preposterously sexy Lindiwe Suttle brought a touch of Lady Gaga-esque weirdness to the show... And reggae legends Third World are over on the Basil Manenberg Coetzee stage right now, if Lauryn's glitchy, edgy, shambles of a show tips you over your personal embarrassment threshold.
So the older, sophisticated jazz cats in the crowd are not invested in this set they way they might be for an exclusive Lauryn Hill show. Three songs in, and and those guys are gone. There's clearly been little in the way of soundcheck beforehand, and the band itself, while classy and talented, don't seem to know their singer that well. She's performing to them, as much to us, directing them to come in, play another four bars, take a solo... These guys are earning their bucks tonight. You can almost feel the stress coming off the stage.
We're on edge too. The die-hards who've stuck it out want her to pull it off. Come on, sister! There's still something there, you see. This isn't a fuck-up, it's a challenge! We can get through this! "Let's take a moment," she insists. Let's get this sound right. They never really do, though things improve.
But she is compelling viewing, this chaotic genius dervish of a woman. Stylishly dressed in flowing purple and orange dress, black leather biker jacket, chunky necklace and fedora, she also wields a dark handkerchief like a baton. It's really her! It's Lauryn Hill, five times Grammy winner, seller of 10 million albums, style icon, mother of six, rapper, singer, actress, activist and one of the greatest artistic talents of all time.
But she's not at her best. As predicted, her voice is rough. Many melody lines she delivers miss both the top and the bottom notes, though her ragged mid-range retains that expressive, righteous, defiant anger. The rhyming is on point, timing still sharp, though the all-together-at-full-blast arrangement drowns her out.
The neo-soul assault segues into a minimalist R&B phase, some harder edged rap, a Marley tribute and a funk workout. At this point it becomes clear how much of a mountain Ms Hill is trying to climb. She's trying to be James Brown, Roberta Flack, Bob Marley and Chuck D in turn. Throw in some Phil Spector-style musical directing and she's got her plate full. Especially when she's leaving the stage for 30 seconds every two songs. Hard to do, harder to watch.
But just towards the end of her two-hour set, just after she fumbles her mic, drops it on the floor, then goes backstage again for a short spell, Lauryn Hill salvages something. There's redemption. I mean who, on god's green earth, can actually do a credible Bob Marley medley, if not Lauryn Hill! Her shattered voice, far from disintegrating, actually improves during the show. Apologising for the technical hassles, she promises to "make this last one count", and does a Doo Wop (That Thing), that kills. It doesn't hurt that we're all on her side, willing her to make it work, and she summons her reserves to nail the vocal performance like how we remember it.
Real artists challenge the audience and themselves, and Lauryn Hill is a challenging artist. This is not easy listening, nor easy to watch. It's uncomfortable, disappointing, infuriating, but compellingly human. The moments of greatness are rare and fleeting, but she's not phoning it in. In this performance, Lauryn Hill is fighting to summon the ghost of her greatness through the haze of distraction, jet lag, lack of rehearsal time and whatever else. And in those last three or four songs, we caught a glimpse of it.
And fuck it. She came, she played the songs we wanted to hear and she played for two hours. People must just be strong. This riding on the edge of a bullet is the currency in which Lauryn Hill trades. Taking the path less travelled, turning her back on success, self-sabotage, coming back from the brink of disaster, this is what she does. This is Lauryn Hill, and that's who we saw Saturday night.