She was an hour and a half late. Her DJ, Rampage, played an opening set that grimly foreshadowed an exercise in '90s nostalgia. But once Lauryn Hill literally emerged from a cloud of smoke and stepped up to the microphone, and that voice echoed through the Rialto Theatre, all was forgiven.
Ms. Hill played a mix of Fugees and solo hits, album tracks and some Bob Marley covers. Still, she made very few concessions to a pop audience. She was at times jovial, angry, playful and upsettingly emotional, but she was obviously genuine in her intensity. Hits became 10-minute marathons featuring Hill's very impressive band-leading, where she visibly conducted her excellent 10-piece band, James Brown-style, turning improvisations into incendiary anthems.
Rumors of Hill's eccentricities are prevalent, and the stress did seem to influence her performance. From her epic "Black Rage" protest poem/song to "Ex-Factor," the emotional high point of the concert, every tic and catch in her throat drew frenzied screams from the spellbound crowd.
In the late 1970s, soul legend Marvin Gaye was court-ordered to record an album whose royalties would serve as alimony payments to his ex-wife. The resulting double LP, Here, My Dear, was an extremely explicit account of the disintegration of the marriage, as well as of Gaye's personal demons. While the painful confessions of Lauryn Hill's show did not go as far, parallels can be drawn: She made constant referrals to betrayal, injustice, personal oppression and psychological suffering. Overall, Ms. Hill's performance was a tour-de-force of the human experience, in line with the soul greats who preceded her. But she simultaneously reached back further, through early jazz, ragtime and blues.
Her band was absolutely stunning, stopping on dimes at less than a moment's notice. And as comic relief, Hill coached her three (excellent) backing vocalists through mismatched harmonies during her set.
Opening MC Big Meridox, a Tucson native, won over the audience within seconds with his friendly demeanor and '90s-flavored rhymes. His half-hour performance more than warmed the audience up for the headliner. He even apologized to older attendees for his profanity. It was a great beginning to an amazing night.