Review: Lauryn Hill kills, not so softly, at Belly Up in Aspen

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times


• Only in Aspen: Former Harvard University president and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers was seated in the reserved section.

• Overheard on the dance floor: “I want to be at Brookings (Institution). I want to write about my ideas.” Yeah, it gets weird when Washington, D.C., comes to Aspen for Ideas Fest and goes to a Lauryn Hill show.

• And then there’s this: A single piece of confetti fell from the lighting rig above the stage mid-show, left over from the Flaming Lips’ concerts in December when they blasted the place with their confetti canon.

Lauryn Hill may only have one solo studio record — 1998’s groundbreaking “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” — but in a muscular performance at Belly Up on Wednesday night, she showed she doesn’t need additional material — she can make the old stuff new again.

Backing her up was a four-man band, a DJ and three female backup singers, producing a huge “wall of sound”-styled texture for her sped-up, rocking new takes on her catalog. Keys player Brad Davis helped set the varying moods, from simple piano touches to atmospheric organ sounds and rollicking funk melodies.

But Hill’s voice was the standout instrument, unsurprisingly, showing off her range and moving seamlessly from a classic soulful delivery into scat, rap, recitative and slam poetry — sometimes within a single song. “Everything Is Everything,” for instance, was arranged in several distinct movements, swerving from hard, funky reggae into balladry into hip-hop and back again.

On “Ex-Factor,” she broke off into passionate, gospel-tinged improvisation, repeating the “This is crazy” lyric like a mantra. During “Final Hour,” she showed off with a tongue-twisting, Busta Rhymes-paced rap.

Given her fickle relationship with performing, and her years-long breaks between touring, it was a relief to find Hill so engaged and intense on stage, wiping sweat from her brow throughout the nonstop sonic push of the first 45 minutes of the show.

After a brief break — during which Hill left the stage and her backup singers sipped oxygen on-stage while Davis played keyboards — she returned with an acoustic guitar and sat on a stool for a run of pared-down songs that didn’t require much from the backing band: “Mr. Intentional,” “Adam Lives in Theory” and “Oh, Jerusalem.”

From there, she ramped it back up with a series of Fugees songs that, like her solo material, were rearranged in new incarnations — a reggae-driven “Zealots,” aggressive rap takes on “How Many Mics” and “Ready or Not.” The “la, la, la” breakdown in “Killing Me Softly” was the sing-along moment of the night.

Hill closed the two-hour show with four Bob Marley songs — “Jammin,” “Don’t Rock My Boat,” “Is this Love” and “Could You Be Loved” — and a show-stopping “Doo Wop (That Thing).”

She was warm with the local crowd, name-dropping Aspen in multiple songs (“I wrote these words for everyone” in “Everything Is Everything” became “I wrote these words for Aspen”; “Newark to Israel” became “Aspen to Israel” on “Final Hour”) and she shook hands and signed a few autographs after the show.

Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” defined hip-hop the way that Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” defined rock a generation earlier. Playing those songs more than 15 years since her defining album was released, Hill showed she is as willing to evolve and grow as Dylan has — so here’s hoping this comeback sticks.