On Saturday evening I was at Jazz Fest watching The Strokes — who started their set 15 minutes and late and finished 15 minutes early — perform at Jazz Fest when I received the following text from a friend who was watching Lauryn Hill at one of the other of the festival’s many stages: “Lauryn Hill is going insane before my very eyes. She’s wearing like 5 layers of clothes and is being a huge diva on stage, complaining about being hot and yelling at her band. She’s literally a hot mess.”
Now, you should know that it was quite hot on Saturday in New Orleans. Not quite hot-as-balls-middle-of-summer-in-Louisiana hot, but it was hot. So why the hell she came out dressed as she did is anyone’s guess, but the way she acted on stage was, according to everyone I spoke to who saw her perform, was quite odd and more than a little awkward. In his review of Hill’s performance, Times Picayune music writer Keith Spera was too way too kind and generous, brushing off her weirdness as her merely showing “clear signs of rust” after a layoff. About the bitchiness Hill — who now bills herself as “Ms. Lauryn Hill” — openly displayed toward her band in front of a live audience, he wrote that “she seemed exceptionally ill-at-ease and high-strung.”
She constantly gestured at her musicians, urging them to play faster or harder. She was not happy with the sound coming out of her monitors, gesticulating at the stage crew. She rushed lyrics. She occasionally sang too closely to the microphone, distorting a voice that was already much more husky than in her heyday.
This was not the coolly confident Hill that owned the Superdome during the Essence Music Festival years ago, after her classic 1998 album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” had firmly established her post-Fugees identity.
One obvious reason she wasn’t comfortable on Saturday: Her attire. As the hot, setting sun burned directly in her face, she wore a baggy gray pantsuit, complete with longsleeve jacket, over a long dress, plus a broad hat. She looked ready for the cover of a 1960 issue of Vogue, not an afternoon set on a hot day at Jazz Fest. Only Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, in full Mardi Gras Indian regalia at the Acura Stage, was likely hotter than Hill.
Sweating profusely, she addressed a large, partisan crowd that spilled across the width of the dirt track and was primed for any reason to embrace her. Her band, stocked with a hyper-animated bassist, robust guitarist, keyboards, drums, deejay, trio of backing vocalists and New Orleans’ own Hot 8 Brass Band, seemed unaffected by her constant exhortations. They plowed ahead, providing a road map for their leader to follow as she saw fit.
Who knows, maybe being a weirdo is her new schtick? Regardless, here she is knocking her mic and mic stand into the crowd during her set…
(Photo via WWOZ’s Flickr)