Concert Review: Ms Lauryn Hill

Ms Lauryn Hill
[Headliner for the Vancouver International Jazz Festival]
June 26th, 2016
@ Queen Elizabeth Theatre

American rapper, singer-songwriter, and cultural icon Miss Lauryn Hill opened the Vancouver International Jazz Festival on Sunday night with power and grace. The show was one stop of many on Hill’s world tour which includes a headlining performance in Halifax at Canada’s other coastal Jazz Festival.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre was packed with Vancouver’s cultural and social elite. The all-ages, eccentric crowd had me wondering if I was at a concert or a catwalk at points, but despite the fans’ many differences, they shared a love for Lauryn Hill—and the energy and anticipation for her set was palpable.

Hill’s opener Khari Wendell McClelland set the tone for a moving and awe-inspiring evening. McClelland grew up in Detroit and lived in Vancouver for over a decade. Though he’s been performing and making music for just as long, his first EP, Fleeting is The Time, was released only this past June.

His sound is a fusion of folk, soul and jazz. McClelland’s stage presence was absolutely infectious and his music is modern gospel, giving listeners a spiritual and evocative experience. Like his vocals, his dance moves were at times restrained, bursting periodically throughout the opening performance to great reception.

“I feel like if you’re at a Lauryn Hill concert, you probably love justice,” said McClelland warmly.

Audience members screamed and cheered at this in obvious assurance. Like Hill, McClelland’s music speaks truth to power. McClelland spoke to racism, Vancouver’s issues with poverty and about resilience and the need for people to keep pushing for a better world – to Roll On.

His impassioned set cycled through his new EP, and featured an enthusiastic cover of David Bowie’s “Pretty Things.” Far from the only tribute of the night, Hill went on to cover multiple Bob Marley songs and capped off the night with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”

Known for her lateness and sometimes her no-shows, Hill glided onto the stage at 10 p.m. in an A-line floor-length, short-sleeved classic dress. Within the first minutes of Hill being on stage, she had stagehands bring out two comically large fans to cool her down.

Hill and her band played what seemed to be the entirety of her critically acclaimed debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) at around twice the speed of the original recordings. At this pace Hill’s rapping and singing was not only very impressive, it was making fans go wild, with most people unable to keep pace with her.

Hill was lively and energetic, getting up from her hand-carved wooden bench and putting down her guitar to bust out some moves periodically throughout the set. She was like a conductor, completely aware of her entire jazz band and constantly whipping her head around to give direction and notes. She was masterful.

With breakdown after breakdown, Hill twisted these almost two-decade old melodies and phrases, drawing them out and then speeding them up to head-spinning effect. I don’t believe there was one time in the entirety of the night where the men behind me didn’t exclaim “Unbelievable!” or “This woman!” at every break during Hill’s set.

Every time I scanned the audience, I would see people swaying rhythmically, smiling widely with closed eyes, others with bowed heads moving ever so slightly and some even singing along to every lyric. It was a night of incredible dancing, joy, reflection and love. Hill made hearts ache from feeling so much, so deeply.

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