If you let yourself go along for the ride, Lauryn Hill's Electric Factory concert was pretty amazing
Lauryn Hill | Photo by John Vettese

About 30 minutes into Lauryn Hill‘s Electric Factory performance on Saturday night, she launched into “Ex-Factor” – except it didn’t sound like any version of that song you’ve ever heard. The tempo was twice as fast, the instrumental arrangements were completely different and jammed out, Hill’s phrasing took an interpretive turn. The energy was amazing, the band was tight, the performance overall sounded tremendous, but those attributes didn’t sit well with the group of people situated just behind me.

A group of friends began loudly griping over Hill’s rendition of “Ex-Factor,” how it’s supposed to be (per the album version) a slow and aching ballad. During a quiet breakdown they actually brought out a smartphone to watch the music video of the original on speaker (!), while one of them yelled “Lauryn, no one’s feelin’ you” (and was summarily booed by the people around him). Before the song had ended, they left their spot in front of the stage to exit the venue’s side doors, missing out on an incredible show.

Hill played for two hours on Saturday, mixing songs from her classic 1998 LP The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill with an acoustic set of material a la her Unplugged 2.0 release, a high-energy block of Fugees classics, and covers from Nancy Sinatra to Rodgers and Hammerstein to Bob Marley.

That’s two hours from the time she actually got on stage, mind you. Her DJ took the mic at about 10:55 to break down the run of show, and it was classic soul revue style: he was going to spin, then the band was going to come out and play, then the backup singers were going to come out, then Ms. Hill was going to come out. If you see Charles Bradley and his band, this is how it plays out; if you saw James Brown back in the day, it was how he rocked it too. Despite the DJ spelling this out, this sense of pageantry wasn’t popular among the curmudgeon-y group behind me either; they got impatient and began heckling from the get-go.

One has to wonder how much people knew about Hill as a performer in 2014 before buying tickets to the show. Perhaps this September 2014 essay by Talib Kweli should be a pre-requisite for all concert ticket purchases:

When you pay for a Lauryn Hill concert you are not paying for her to do what you want, you are paying for her to do what she wants. She is not an iPod nor is she a trained monkey. She doesn’t have to do her hits and she doesn’t have to do the songs the way you want to hear them. She doesn’t owe you that. The world does not revolve around you, and you ain’t gotta like it. Get over yourself. If you have a negative experience at her concert, go home, put on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and the next time she does come through your town, don’t go to her concert. Problem solved. Just because you had a negative experience at a Lauryn Hill show doesn’t mean her contribution to the world is invalid or deserves to be disrespected.

Kweli, it’s worth noting, played an intensely good opening set of his own. He’s charismatic – both a formidable onstage presence and a down-to-earth, approachable-seeming dude who happens to be an icon of modern hiphop. Highlights included “Get Up,” “Get em High” (his collabo on Kanye West’s 2004 album The College Dropout) and a mix of songs from his work with Hi-Tek on Reflection Eternal and his project with Mos Def, Black Star.

Talib Kweli and Res | Photo by John Vettese

Oh, and Res was there too. “I’ve got a friend from Philly who’s a singer,” he told the crowd, and Res took the stage to delighted cheers and stuck around for most of the set to sing backups and act as hype woman, mixing in her hit “They Say Vision” into the set along with her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” from last year’s Refried Mac project.

The Philly openers were also top notch. Khemist from the Logan Valley section hit the stage at 8 and rapped to a track, warming up the early arrivals with thought-provoking jams – including a particularly impressive one called “Bring My People Back.”

Kuf Knotz and a six-piece ensemble followed right away with a selection of familiar tunes (“The Currency,” “Sunny Philadelphia” from Boombox Logic) and live debuts of music from A Positive Light, his long-awaited new album that OMG holy cow finally has a release date (February 24th via Ropeadope Records, per the postcards getting handed out after the show). Ginger Coyle chimed in on backup vocals, while the band Satellite Hearts were Kuf’s rhythm section, and though it was a bit bumpy at points, it was understandable – they’d only rehearsed a handful of times since landing the support slot earlier in the week. The opening track played over the riff from Arctic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know?” which already makes it a certified rager, while “Never Give Up” was an introspective slow burn and “Get Free” was a joyful dub-flavored track that’s being dropped as a single on January 20th. Much to anticipate from Mr. Knotz.

But back to the business of the headliner, the star of the night: her set was unusual in the best possible way. I’m not going to attempt saying it was flawless; Ms. Hill has a massive preoccupation with her monitor mix, and arrangements, you could see her gesturing frantically to the sound engineer all night. Turn this up, turn this down, all the way up till the 1:25 a.m. conclusion. She did the same thing to the players in her band – though that I found admittedly less distracting. Hill isn’t just a singer, she’s owning the role of band leader – even conductor, if you will. That said, while the rearranged jams were interesting and engaging for the most part, some (okay, yes, “Ex-Factor” was one) were a bit self-indulgent – after the third tempo / time-signature change and you’re on a massively repeating coda, what more are you adding?

But that’s okay, because the good moments hugely outweighed the shortfalls. “Lost Ones” as a pulsating high-BPM disco number was unreal, and it was one of several moments of the show where Hill allowed herself to stop nit-picking the mix and just be in the moment. Her dancing, energy and delivery was electric. (Check out my brief Instagram video of it below.) “Final Hour” was also a progressive build that hit a point of catharsis. The acoustic set was done in the style of Unplugged but seemed to largely favor new songs, including the standout “Black Rage.” And The Fugees block — ehmagawd. “Killing Me Softly” was unbelievable. She’d sang it earlier, actually, in the mix of one of those jams at the opening of the show, but returned to it a second time, the only song she really did in its “proper” version. “Fu-Gee La” and “Ready Or Not” were both performed in new arrangements, but the singalong energy was ecstatic. Also around here, a sweet cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” showed up, ushering in something of a tribute portion of the night.

“You like reggae?” Hill asked the crowd around 1 a.m., launching into a delightful version of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’.” This was followed by “Satisfy My Soul,” then “Is This Love?” and, as soon as I asked my wife if she was covering Legend in its entirety at this point, “Could You Be Loved?” showed up too. Who the heck covers four songs by the same artist in a non-tribute show? Lauryn Hill does, and who cares, they sounded great.

As the night came to a close, Hill introduced the band and wound it down into “Doo-Wop (That Thing).” The first verse and refrain was, of course, re-arranged, but relatively true to form, but as the chorus ended, Hill said “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you know I’ve got to do this my way” and the beat dropped way down to a crawl for the next verse before exploding into a hammering triple-time coda that went on and on for ten minutes. It was the perfect encapsulation of the show, and the performer, in a single song – unpredictable, unhinged, but completely compelling.

One more. #lostones #lboogie #LaurynHill

A video posted by John Vettese (@johnvettese) on

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