March 9, 2002
Classic Center-Athens, GA
Woah, nobody expected this! Lauryn Hill is probably the most mainstream performer I've ever seen in Athens. How odd then that she put on the most brutally honest and independent-minded set that I've seen here. Strolling out with a sack across her back, she sat down at center stage with just an acoustic guitar and some notes. She warned with a nervous smile, "If you came here expecting a show, you're going to be disappointed, but if you came to interface...we can do that." Her own fear was clear at the start. It was obvious that she was concerned how people would react, but she pushed through and warmed up more and more throughout the night, eventually reaching a point of near fearlessness. She started the night by strumming a couple of chords on her guitar and singing a simple melody without any obvious form. After a few minutes of this, she announced that she had started writing that song earlier in the day. For the next two hours, it was just that loose and spontaneous. If she forgot lyrics, she would consult her notes and start over. This was clearly off the cuff and from the heart. She spent as much, if not more, time talking with the surprised audience as singing for them. She didn't do a single hit or track that anyone had heard before. Instead, she played all new material.
Songs like "I Remember" and "Peace Of Mind" came across as Lauryn's own private confessions while the song "I Get Out" was intense. "I get out of all your boxes, you can't hold me in these chains, she declared. First, she'd whisper smoothly, then she'd belt out a line to the border of her voice's breaking point, creating a raspy, crying timbre. She seemed at once to be standing against what the industry made her out to be and the expectations of her audience. When she sang, "What you see is what you get and you ain't seen nothing yet...I don't care if you get upset." You knew that she meant it. All of the material was painfully introspective as it detailed her own failures, misgivings, hopes and beliefs as an artist, friend, wife, mother and human. Several times she said she was glad that her husband wasn't at the show, because he'd be upset if she knew all of the personal secrets she was divulging. That was easy to understand as she talked about her previous lovers, all the ways she had been hurt and how "stupid" she had been in the past. On top of this, she railed against her image as an R & B diva, rebelling against the "fantasy" that she had created.
One of the more interesting songs that mirrored these heart to heart talks was "Mystery Of Inequity." It began with her simple reggae/acoustic accompaniment. When the verse started, she detailed a past relationship. Then somewhere, the song veered into an extended lightning-fast diatribe/rap about government, politics and religion. Every now and again, her pointed statements would illicit spontaneous outbursts from the crowd. A few times, I caught tears welling in eyes around me. This audience seemed completely knocked-off guard by the purity of what was going on before them. After the song, Lauryn asked, "How are you feeling?" Someone yelled back "Inspired!" She paused for a long time, herself teary-eyed at this point as she gazed down at the floor. Then she looked up and smiled, "It's cool what something new can do for you." Surprisingly, Lauryn Hill has rebelled against her own multi-million dollar business to actually become a "musical artist." She has stolen her talent back from producers and A&R men. She is evoking and modernizing both Bob Dylan and Bob Marley in her new approach. She has risen above her own "miseducation" and decided to teach herself. In the process, she could teach us all in the same way that Dylan and Marley did in their time. Lauryn Hill is the real deal. (Chris McKay/concertshots.com)