White-robed Hill inspires local converts

Though she's stayed largely out of the limelight over the past decade, fans in Israel embraced R&B icon Lauryn Hill at her first-ever Israeli concert.

lauren hill 88 (photo credit: )
lauren hill 88
(photo credit: )
R & B singer Lauryn Hill got stuck in traffic on the way to her own concert Monday night, apologizing to 7,500 fans at the Rana'ana Amphipark for her unexpectedly late arrival. But though the delay proved that even five-time Grammy winners are subject to the cruel whims of rush hour, Hill also demonstrated a fact much more satisfying to her sell-out audience: once she's behind the microphone, the laws governing mere mortals only vaguely apply. It's already been nine years since The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the solo debut that earned the singer 11 Grammy nominations and established her as the next big, genre-shattering hope for American music. It was easy, at the time, to imagine the performer 30 or 40 years in the future, still releasing acclaimed albums that would appeal to the massive, diverse fan base that embraced The Miseducation. But that was then. With the exception of a little publicized acoustic album released in 2002, Hill dropped out of sight not long after The Miseducation. It's rare for a performer to forsake such bright lights, such big sales by choice, and for those who've continued to think of her, the singer has posed something of a mystery in the near-decade since. Was she simply a one-shot revelation, the kind of star that burns bright but then quickly flames out? Had she been too intimidated by her own success to continue, afraid of the high expectations that would inevitably accompany a follow-up? Had she, to put it less charitably, lost it? Monday''s sell-out audience at the Ra'anana Amphipark didn't really care. Whatever explanations exist for Hill's unconventional career trajectory, the unexpected announcement that the star would perform in Israel this summer had obviously energized the mostly 20-something fans in attendance, who waited patiently, and with growing excitement, as Hill worked her way through traffic and took her place on stage. She cut quite a figure when she did, wearing the white robe of an African American preacher and the hair and eye make-up of a blaxploitation film heroine. "This is the first time most of this audience has been to church," a non-Israeli audience member said after the first song. But Hill's approach to spirituality appears similar to her performance style: it's free-wheeling, a bit improvisational and clearly originates from a place of honesty. Though she doubtless performs a similar line-up each night she's on tour, the singer injected energy and a sense of authenticity into each of her songs, which included covers of numbers by Nina Simone and her father-in-law, the late Bob Marley. (Hill segued smoothly between one of his most famous hits, "Iron, Lion, Zion," into another place-appropriate number - her own "To Zion," a song written for a different namesake, her son.) In keeping with the un-pre-packaged flavor of the evening, Hill evidently felt no pressure to perform that song, or any of her other hits, in the style familiar from the radio. Instead, the singer - still only 32 - added hip-hop elements to some of her biggest numbers, including songs from her days with the Fugees like "Ready or Not," and the band's cover of the Roberta Flack classic "Killing Me Softly." As a general rule, performers' refusal to play songs as fans know them can be irritating, and even offensive - an indirect way of declaring that the artist has moved on and that fans, if they don't like it, can get lost. But Hill brought such life to Monday's performance that the omissions of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" and her biggest radio smash, "Doo Wop (That Thing)," were both more or less forgivable. In their place, the artist offered an enjoyable new track, the R & B-tinged "Lose Myself," and a rendition of "Everything is Everything" that reverberated deep into the Mediterranean night. "Change, it comes eventually," the artist sang, sticking to the song's original lyrics. A performer who knows how to communicate with her audience, Hill then modified the words, trying to inspire some hope in her Israeli audience but doing so without the least bit of condescension or presumptuousness. "Peace, it comes eventually."