LAURYN HILL at the Hummingbird Centre, July 28. Tickets: $50-$80. Attendance: 2,500. Rating: NNN
For a singer who now refuses to call herself a performer, associating the word with music-industry enslavement, Lauryn Hill sure seems to enjoy playing the pop star again.That Hill even made it to the Hummingbird Centre Sunday was something of a shock. The singer's Unplugged comeback disc was a blubbering mess, more self-help session than a set of music, and recent live appearances haven't been much better. Hill has frequently broken down in tears and all but ignored her audience in favour of rants about religion, priorities and the evil of man.
Whether she's realized that it's a bit rich to ask fans to pay $80 and then lecture them for two hours or she's simply in a better state of mind now, Sunday's show was not the complete train wreck many feared. Instead, Hill smiled, laughed and generally worked the crowd, leaving the hectoring at home and focusing on the music.
As on the Unplugged album, Hill ditched the beats for an acoustic guitar and eschewed popular past material for rambling, unedited and deeply personal new songs. It's a rash decision, considering how she clearly got off on stomping through a funked-up version of 1998's Ex-Factor, but also because her new songs are still largely works-in-progress.
Tunes like Adam Lives In Theory and Oh Jerusalem are ordinary folk songs delivered with an extraordinary voice. Although Hill has whittled them down from the unwieldy messes on disc, they're still not complete. Hill seemed to know that and kept the set exceedingly loose, toying with the tunes on the fly and calling out a percussionist or a bassist when she saw fit.
It didn't always work. Many of the songs lacked focus, her band was unrehearsed and the whole affair was often on the verge of collapse. That said, it's a step forward from where Hill was at a year ago, and you get the impression watching her bang through a song like I Get Out that she's working toward something major.
If she gets there, it will be something actually worth seeing.