Things at a Country Music Show: First, there are lines! Long, long lines. A line for the barbeque stand stretched across the field, so I counted it. 145 people, all waiting in line! Then I looked to my left—another barbeque stand, another long line. The line for Coors, conspicuously, not so long. Did everyone sneak in flasks of Jack Daniels? Next there’s the merch stand, with hot pink T-shirts reading “Country Girl… Wanna Shake It?,” which belong to supporting act Luke Bryan. With the No. 1 Country Album this week, Bryan has the crowd in the palm of his hand for his set.
Bryan himself wore skin-tight jeans and a crystal-studded belt, and had enough spunk to fill a tractor tank. Sure, his songs are kinda corny (see: “Rain is a Good Thing”). But one can hand it to Bryan, because he bothers to check out Google Maps before he plays and works local sites into his songs. Case in point is “We Rode in Trucks,” with the amended, Sonoma County-relevant line, “The Russian River washed away that California dirt.” People ate it up! They also got on each others’ shoulders, drank beer, and went “whoo-hoo.”
Near the end of his set, Bryan’s guitarist played the riff to “Hell’s Bells,” which led into his own hit “All My Friends Say,” which then led into a friggin’ verse and chorus of “Enter Sandman,” by Metallica, and then back again into his own song, closing out the show. This would seem to be a trend in new country music—ending the show with a hard-rock song. Miranda Lambert did it last year with “I Love Rock and Roll”; Thompson Square, an opener, also did “I Love Rock and Roll” in medley with “Black Dog”; and Dierks Bentley would end his own set with an all-out punk song, serenading the riders of the mechanical bull.
How ’bout that Dierks! “I wish you guys could see what we see up here,” he told the crowd. “There’s so many California country girls tonight!” Many of whom, of course, sang along to “Free and Easy” and “Trying to Stop You Leaving,” two back-to-back hits early in the set. Dierks also ran circles around the stage, told stories about drinking in a local brewpub and took photos with fans. All in all, a well-played set, and those who missed it might have still heard it, because upon returning home, Facebook was logjammed with people complaining about hearing the music as far away as the SRJC and the Flamingo Hotel. Dierks for all, it seems.
The long-hoped-for resurrection of Lauryn Hill, a dream seeming to slip further away with each year and each incoherent concert, took a giant step closer to fulfillment tonight at the Harmony Festival in Santa Rosa.
We may never know what exactly has plagued Hill these last eight years, forcing her to shirk the limelight, cancel tours and sabotage her reputation, just as we may never know how she became capable of triumphantly returning to the stage in 2010. One thing is evident: in Santa Rosa, of all places, the 35-year-old singer finally showed she craves dearly to be taken seriously again. Reinvigorated with enthusiasm, she inhabited the music, conducted the band, belted improvised shout-outs and thanked the crowd—all in the first song. “I love you,” she exclaimed to a field of fans. “It’s so good to see you.”
If it weren’t for the harlequin outfit, bulky hoop earrings and heavy metal guitar solos, it was almost like seeing the Lauryn Hill of old.
Outwardly struggling with fame, Hill has long evinced a complete dread of pleasing the public (see: Unplugged 2.0), but in a 75-minute set of Fugees classics and Miseducation tracks in Santa Rosa, she refreshingly aimed to do just that. From breakneck set opener “Lost Ones” to the slam-dunk closer “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Hill showed a genuine desire to again fulfill her talent.
It started rough. Scheduled to go on at 6pm, Ms. Lauryn Hill, as she requires to be billed, came onstage only after her DJ bored the crowd with a half hour of clunky, unblended snippets from the likes of “Purple Haze,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Pass the Dutchie” and “Bam Bam.” The presence of two large teleprompters at the foot of the stage, for lyrics, added to the slowly mounting despair. By 6:29, when instructed to make noise for the umpteenth time, the teeming crowd could only wonder if Hill would arrive at all.
But grandly arrive she did, in an ’80s multicolored full-body jumpsuit that was only moderately silly in light of the get-ups donned by the average Harmony Festival attendee. “Lost Ones” set things straight in a ten-minute version that twisted through five different arrangements, and Hill’s recently-faded voice showed rejuvenated form with “When It Hurts So Bad.” By the beautiful “Turn Your Your Lights Down Low,” the crowd was in the palm of Hill’s hands, and comeback was in the air.
“We gonna do some old stuff,” Hill proclaimed, “but, but, but, but… there is a ‘but’… we gonna do some old stuff kinda new. Is that okay with you?” A medley of Fugees tracks followed, with Hill even taking over some Wyclef and Pras verses and singing OG sample material (“I Only Have Eyes For You”). And despite a generation’s collective memorization of the album versions, reworked songs with reggae and hard rock elements electrified Hill, who nailed every segue and spat out lightning-fast lines quicker than the crowd could sing along.
There were, sadly, two immediate drawbacks. One, Hill clearly has no concept at all of how live sound operates. Both between and in the middle of songs, she constantly complained about the stage and house mix, chiding the soundman to keep turning up every instrument and microphone according to her fleeting whims. The result was a washed-out din.
The other problem was that Hill is perhaps now too eager for public approval. From the ultra-fast tempos which, even with the teleprompters, she at times struggled to keep up with; to the claustrophobic arrangements for two guitars, two basses, two keyboards and three backup singers; to the “whooooo!”s and the “yeeaahhh!”s and the hasty leg-kicking, the concert had the effervescent taint of a Vegas show.
Realizing that Hill is simply giving people what they want—in preparation for her Rock the Bells dates, no doubt—is a blessing and a curse. She admirably tried for a time to break from fame’s mold, but it only resulted in bad music and psychological deterioration. With this greatest-hits set out on the road, her old fans are certainly satisfied, but what about staying true to one’s muse?
The question was forgotten each time Hill eagerly jumped into each song. “Pop this one, c’mon, let’s go!” she told her band, and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” set an entire field of festival goers aflame. “Thank you so much,” she said, as a sea of arms applauded wildly. “Thank you for your patience with us. Good to see you. Hope to see you soon.”
Lauryn Hill hasn’t made fans’ patience an easy task these last eight years, but let’s hope we see her in this kind of form again soon. Her emancipation might still not fit some people’s equation—I’ve already heard from people who were disappointed with the show—but the trainwreck curse is over and the resurrection is afoot. Now the fine-tuning begins.
When It Hurts So Bad
Turn Your Lights Down Low
How Many Mics / I Can’t Stand Losing You
I Only Have Eyes For You / Zealots
Ready or Not
Doo Wop (That Thing)
More Photos Below.