Ms. Lauryn Hill spans genres and cultures for a fired-up Diaspora Calling show at The Mann - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Ms. Lauryn Hill | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

Eighteen years almost to the day after the release of her landmark solo album, Ms. Lauryn Hill played to a fired-up crowd of fans at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts in West Philly. Her multi-platinum albums, both solo and with Fugees, still stand as hip hop and neo-soul titans, an achievement certainly worth an evening of anniversary acknowledgement.

Saturday’s show in Philly was the opening night of Hill’s MLH Caravan: A Diaspora Calling! Concert Series, touted as an ensemble event celebrating the artistic and cultural legacy of African disapora.

Soul Rebels ft. Talib Kweli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

Soul Rebels ft. Talib Kweli | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

The tour features the reggae-rock of Jesse Royal, the genre-fusing soul/funk/Dixieland jazz of the Soul Rebels (with Talib Kweli on vocals!), and the even-more-difficult-to-categorize Trinidadian singer Machel Montano. These supporting bands served to rally the energy of the crowd in anticipation for Hill’s introduction, highlighted by the boundless energy of Montano and his four gymnastic dancers, and Kweli’s renditions of “I Try” and “Get By,” his hip hop classics reconfigured against the backdrop of the Soul Rebels’ contemporary brass.

Ms. Lauryn Hill | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

Dancer during Ms. Lauryn Hill’s set | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

Then, taking the stage almost while most of her audience was distracted by a kinetic African dancer, the beloved Hill waved a quiet hello to the crowd’s full-throated salutation and sat center-stage on an upholstered couch with her acoustic guitar, surrounded by over a dozen other musicians.

She seemed to struggle with her levels for a bit early on, administering stage directions to the soundboard as she sang, and like a maestro to her rhythm sections as well throughout the night. Like Kweli’s rap earlier in the evening, much of Hill’s material was also reimagined against her band’s wall of sound, as she traded in some of the signature lyrical cadences for which she’s so well known for a sort of intensified, hyper-urgent machine-gun delivery, with crescendos at times reaching a distorted fever pitch.

Ms. Lauryn Hill | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

Ms. Lauryn Hill | photo by Josh Pelta-Heller for WXPN

The experimentation aside, though, Saturday’s show was an opportunity to catch a legendary performer in her prime. Hill pulled several singles from Mis-education including “Lost Ones,” “Everything Is Everything” and “Doo-Wop (That Thing)”, and she tapped The Score for favorites “How Many Mics,” “Fu-Gee-La,” “Ready Or Not,” and “Killing Me Softly.” She reached for some covers, too, with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” and Bob Marley’s “Jammin” and “Is This Love.”

Offering music across genre and culture, MLH Caravan boasts big bands and big sounds, with a maximalist multimedia stage production that might’ve been designed by Baz Luhrmann. Says Hill about the show on her website, she conceived the tour as an artistic “exchange” in the context of a currently volatile social climate, with an express intent to “yield direction, expression, understanding and empowerment as well as connection, self-Love and appreciation that hopefully overflows into our respective communities.”

Ambitious, for sure. Perhaps not overly so, though, for an artist this magnificent and a Philadelphia audience this big, this diverse, and this happy, all under the same concert hall roof.

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