Review / photos / setlist: Lauryn Hill comes back to life at the Ritz Ybor in Tampa
Seeing her was like spotting a wildcat in the woods.
No one knew what she would do. No one, in fact, really knew what she looked like these days, save for the few who had traced her tracks this week from Miami to Orlando to Ybor City.
All anyone knew when Lauryn Hill ambled onstage at the Ritz Ybor Wednesday night was it was time to get excited, because it meant this is actually happening, right now, right here, for reals.
The reclusive L.Boogie had come back to life.
It was, to say the least, an unexpected appearance. Since winning an unprecedented five Grammys, including Album of the Year, for her 1998 masterwork The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the pressures of fame, family and identity pushed the mercurial rapper and singer into seclusion. And in the past dozen years, she has emerged only infrequently for occasional, erratic performances (see: her sharply divisive, deeply confessional live double album MTV Unplugged 2.0).
At the Ritz — which, due to a hefty $65 cost of admission, drew fewer than 900 people, about 600 shy of capacity — you had to wonder if she still wanted to be seen. Hill’s figure was lost beneath a Yankee cap and thick bob, an oversized patterned coat and a loose-fitting jumpsuit that looked like it was made of crepe paper.
But the fact is, no matter what fans were expecting from Wednesday’s show, Hill delivered on almost all counts.
Following a 115-minute set from DJ Rampage (the opening act, the Hot 8 Brass Band, canceled), Hill held sway over the anxious crowd for 90 minutes, leading them on a tour of her personal musical history, from covers of Bob Marley and the Flamingos, to her biggest hits with the Fugees, to a huge chunk of Miseducation, an album that hasn’t aged a day.
First, the bad. There were no mid-set breakdowns, or extended stretches where Hill left the stage, but from the very beginning, Hill and her band — six members, three singers and a DJ — felt just out of sync. All night, she kept rolling her arms at the group, as if to say, Come on, speed up, let’s go let’s go let’s go! For most of the night, it seemed, the band couldn’t play fast enough for Hill, who turned the incendiary Lost Ones into a borderline disco boogie.
But with Lost Ones — and with all of her old hits, really — the lure of the call-and-response was too great to ignore. Oh, those blazing hooks:
“You might win some, but you just lost one! You might win some, but you just lost one!”
“Oooh, la la la; it’s the way that we rock when we’re doing our thing...”
“Giiiirrrrls, you know you better: WATCH OUT!”
Hill’s energy rose and fell with that of the crowd, especially when she stopped singing and started rapping on explosive anthems like Ex-Factor, Everything Is Everything and the thrilling, joyous Doo Wop (That Thing). She did not dip into her Unplugged songbook, nor did she play any new material. But otherwise, she performed more or less exactly what fans were probably hoping for.
The room went electric when Hill launched into a five-song Fugees set, with each song topping the next — How Many Mics, Fu-Gee-La, Killing Me Softly. She brought the house lights down for the spine-tingling intro to Ready Or Not. Forget ’Clef and Pras — Hill delivered each song as if it were her own.
There will be some debate as to whether this was a great concert. Was it the tightest set you’ll ever see? No. It was, in many ways, something better — it was real, palpable, at times awkward, chilling and thrilling. The room swelled with tension as fans wondered what Hill might do next, and when it was clear that she could still deliver the goods, that tension was released in harmonious positive energy.
At 1 a.m., Hill stood at the front of the stage and thanked the crowd profusely. She promised new music. She promised to return.
This is a good thing. The influence of Miseducation alone still reverberates across the pop music landscape, from Rihanna to Amy Winehouse to B.o.B. L.Boogie still has a few things on her mind, we’d bet on it.
These were the first tentative steps of an artist regaining her footing. They were baby steps, but steps nonetheless.
From Hill, we’ll take it. Ready or not, she can’t hide any longer.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Luis Santana, tbt*
1. We and Dem (Bob Marley cover)
2. Everything Is Everything
3. Sweetest Thing
4. Lost Ones
5. When It Hurts So Bad
7. To Zion
9. Is This Love (Bob Marley cover)
10. How Many Mics (Fugees)
11. I Only Have Eyes For You (Flamingos cover)
12. Zealots (Fugees)
13. Fu-Gee-La (Fugees)
14. Ready Or Not (Fugees)
15. Killing Me Softly (Fugees)
16. Turn Your Lights Down Low
17. Doo Wop (That Thing)