Tonight Austin City Limits welcomed a musical trailblazer – Ms. Lauryn Hill. In a rare television appearance, Hill dazzled the capacity crowd for almost two hours with a wide range of hits from her Grammy-winning, bestselling LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as well as from her time with the Fugees. The crowd, on their feet for the entire show, cheered loudly and sang along to her unique arrangements of originals and classic songs by Bob Marley, Sade, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder.
The evening began with a stirring set from DJ Rampage who got the audience on their feet and ready to welcome Ms. Hill. Resplendent in a blue and yellow gown, Ms. Hill took to the stage and sat down with her acoustic guitar and eased into “Conformed to Love,” which began softly but transformed into an anthem due to the power of the band and her own impassioned singing. She followed with “Peace of Mind,” another new tune with an intricate web of vocals, flamenco-colored lead guitar from Jordan Peters and an unexpected scat/instrumental reprise. She then dipped into her 2002 MTV Unplugged album for the groovy “Mr. Intentional,” before pulling out a surprising and heartfelt cover of Sade’s devotional “Love is Stronger Than Pride.” Ms. Hill and band kept the Unplugged groove going with “War in the Mind (Freedom Time)” and “Mystery of Iniquity,” mixing jazz, folk, soul and rap into a distinctive blend all her own.
By this time, the audience was on its feet, giving as much energy back as they were receiving and Ms. Hill put her acoustic guitar away and the ensemble launched into a re-imagined take on Hill’s hit “Ex-Factor,” the band jamming hard and Hill pushing her voice into new territory. The spotlight hit her trio of backup singers, as they danced to the Latin funk rhythm of “Final Hour,” with Ms. Hill expertly speed-rapping through her verses. The energy stayed on high for “Lost Ones,” following a similar vision with the added emphasis on DJ Rampage’s scratching punctuation and Hill’s call-and-response with her singers. She then turned back the clock to the mid-90s and her work with hip-hop superstars the Fugees, taking her skills to the next level with “How Many Mics,” proving she’s one of the greatest MCs of all time. That was just a warm-up for the trilogy of hits to follow, from the booty-shaking “Fu-Gee-La” to the singalong “Ready or Not” and the silky-smooth “Killing Me Softly.” By that time, the crowd couldn’t have been any more off the chain.
Ms. Hill then shifted gears, paying tribute to the Marley family into which her children were born with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’,” which segued smoothly into Stevie Wonder’s reggae nod “Master Blaster.” She wasn’t done with the Marley repertoire, going immediately into “Is This Love” and following with “Could You Be Loved,” the third time this song has been performed on our stage in the past few years. She went from reggae to jazz, overwhelming the audience with a powerhouse version of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she produced and recorded for the recent Simone tribute album Nina Revisited.
After climbing that summit, Ms. Hill asked for well-deserved noise for her incredible band, and the crowd was happy to give it. Then she hit yet another peak with one of the 90s’ greatest singles. The brilliant, irresistible “Doo Wop (That Thing)” drew the band into new crescendoes and the audience into new heights of uninhibited dancing. Ms Hill left the stage in triumph, leaving everybody satiated. It was a magnificent show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs on your local PBS station.