Monday, Nov. 19, 2012
Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: An actual meltdown.
Lauryn Hill doesn't have the best track record in Oakland. In 2007 she came to the Paramount Theatre with a band that included some of the best jazz musicians in the Bay Area, launched her set two hours behind schedule, and croaked through several unfamiliar arrangements of once-ubiquitous hits. Critics derided the then 32-year-old pop star -- who took the stage wearing high heels and a trucker's jacket -- as a flop and a "bag lady." Audience members reported throaty missed notes and a too-conspicuous fall, which Hill attributed to the shoes. When the band embarked for an international tour shortly thereafter, rumors circulated that the erstwhile megastar subjected her crew to rambling soapbox monologues and tempestuous mood swings. She'd become an eccentric at best; at worst, she was an abuser.
And it continued that way for the next five years. By the time Hill launched her current tour with co-headliner Nas, the East Coast rapper who got his major star turn around the same time she did, Hill had fallen into disrepute.
So it was surprising to see a full house clamor to catch her show last night at Oakland's Fox Theater, with tickets selling at $49.50 a head. Outside on Telegraph Avenue a scalped ticket ran for $60 - if you were lucky.
Perhaps everyone had come to see Nas, who retains the same charisma he had in 1994, the year he unleashed Illmatic onto the hip-hop world. Kicking off the show just a hair before 9 p.m., Nas delivered a fantastic set of old hits, all shouted convincingly over the full wallop of his live rock band.
But maybe they crowd had come out of curiosity. Or as sense of perverse anticipation.
"Next Up: The Lauryn Hill Meltdown Show," one wag tweeted, as Nas cycled through the best-known hits on Illmatic and It Was Written. "I look forward to the report!" another user responded.
Up until Ms. Hill took the stage at 10:30 p.m., all signs presaged doom. Nas had kept his set to a concise 90 minutes, repurposing most of his album singles and closing out with an instrumental of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day." When the lights went up, audience members gradually filed toward the door. Those who remained grew increasingly rattled as a twenty minute intermission dragged to half an hour. The house lights went down and a DJ got onstage, trying to mollify the audience with a few smartly chosen, but poorly mixed party hits from Dr. Dre's catalogue. The clock ticked.
When Hill finally emerged, it wasn't without fanfare -- in the form of a protracted, reverb-heavy rock intro that seemed like a preview to coming attractions. Wearing a leather coat over baggy checkered trousers, the singer looked unfashionable, but not quite homeless. She'd pared her band down considerably in five years, arriving with seven sidemen and a trio of background singers who deftly outstripped her on most songs. As predicted, she larded her performance with strangely altered arrangements of old pop songs, including a likeable, if utterly transformed version of "Killing Me Softly" and a too-bubbly rock rendition of "Everything Is Everything." Even while singing, she gave directions to band members, often in the form of an audible scold.