Fun Fun Fun Fest: Lauryn Hill

High priestess of soul contrasts between ACL and FFF

Lauryn Hill remains one of the most beloved and confounding acts in all of music, and her local weekend stint reiterated that. A late sub for fellow R&B enigma D’Angelo, she taped Austin City Limits on Saturday and closed Fun Fun Fun Fest Sunday. The better of the two performances happened in front of the real skyline, not the replica inside the Moody Theater.

Lauryn Hill, Auditorium Shores (Photo by Gary Miller)

For a whole generation of music lovers, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill remains one of the most essential albums of the last 20 years. Austin City Limits prepped for a transcendent performance with a black and white sofa center stage, and a table full of glowing candles. The lounge-like set and relatively small venue seemed designed for an intimate evening with Hill at ease and in her element.

Despite moments of brilliance, that never fully materialized.

In front of the ACL cameras, the 40-year-old New Jersey native seemed agitated and uncomfortable, constantly calling for adjustments to lights and sound. There was something claustrophobic about it that didn’t mesh with the prearranged coffee house vibe. Yet on the big stage at Auditorium Shores, she was loose, and – to quote the night’s signature moment – feeling good.

Hill opened both nights on the sofa, acoustic guitar in hand for the new “Conformed to Love” followed by "I Gotta Find Peace of Mind" from her 2002 MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album. While that double LP has an army of detractors, there’s beauty in its raw intensity and naked honesty. The original is simply Hill and her guitar while locally she was backed up (and drowned out at ACL) by a 12-piece band that included dueling keyboards, DJ, and a trio of horns and backup singers.

This would not be a stripped-down Unplugged sequel; “Mr. Intentional” was jumbled and off from the jump, a dissonant mess.

Both nights were infinitely better when the candles were blown out and the couch disappeared. It was only then, 30 minutes into the set, that Hill played the first song from a studio album, a barely recognizable rearrangement of “Ex Factor.”

“It ain’t workin’,” she sang.

No argument here, but this too improved on Auditorium Shores, where her raps didn’t feel nearly as hurried as the night before, or even at Stubb’s in 2011. The power of L-Boogie revealed itself when the band dropped out and the MC took a moment to breathe.

“Watch how a queen do,” she rightfully commanded on “Final Hour.”

Hill found her groove revisiting Fugees classics “How Many Mics,” “Fu-Gee-La,” and “Ready or Not.” By the time she was killing us softly with her signature Roberta Flack tune, all of Fun Fun Fun Fest was singing along. An obligatory Bob Marley medley followed.

The big moment both nights came on a stirring cover of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Hill name checks her on “Ready or Not,” but in Austin, the singer embodied the high priestess of soul in a tribute from one brilliant, beautiful, and often misunderstood black woman to another.

“It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day,” belted Hill. “And I’m feeling gooooood.”

The band squeezed in “Everything Is Everything,” one of Hill’s best songs and a highlight conspicuously absent from the ACL taping. She closed FFF with “(Doo-Wop) That Thing.” A strict sound ordinance silenced the loudspeakers midway through, but the band played on, Hill leading the sing-along unplugged.

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Lauryn Hill, Fun Fun Fun Fest 2015, Fugees, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, D’Angelo, Austin City Limits

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