A few minutes before 10 p.m., Lauryn Hill’s band slid into a reggae groove, weaving and winding for several minutes before Hill joined them for the chorus of “Killing Me Softly,” a song as synonymous with the Fugees as it is Roberta Flack.
Though the deep bass rattled through the Tabernacle and muffled the music, Hill’s voice, an appealing combination of age-worn rasp and sheer power, soared above it.
In her sparkly shirt that looked like a pasted-on mirror ball, Hill could be seen from the back walls of the floor area and the uppermost levels of the packed venue – a beacon of survival and triumph.
Though Hill has a reputation as a volatile artist and her recent three-month jail stint for failing to pay federal income taxes brought out her well-known defiance, she appeared relaxed and content during her Atlanta performance Monday night (postponed from last Thursday due to weather).
She beamed often as she addressed the crowd and led her band and three female backup singers through elastic versions of Fugees favorites and songs from her landmark 1998 album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
In fact, 40 minutes into the set, Hill had only performed four songs, choosing to elongate them, work in a call-and-response segment or shift rhythm patterns.
Crashing cymbals and soulful keyboard plinks anchored the muscular R&B-rock of “Everything is Everything” while the stringent guitar riff that opens “Lost Ones” reminded of Hill’s proficiency with melding hip-hop and rock.
The vibe of the show was as loose as a soundcheck as Hill, 38, flapped her arms, pointed her finger to accentuate a lyric and spun toward the band to give them a musical cue – all while clearly basking in the music.
“Listen, listen,” she implored the chatty crowd as the band leaned into the intro of “Final Hour” and Hill unfurled her nimble rap skills over the musicians’ groundwork. While her voice is potent when she sings, Hill is equally accomplished when she raps – a talent demonstrated every time she thrilled the crowd with a Fugees song – notably the hyperkinetic “Fu-Gee-La” – and zipped through not only her segments, but those of former bandmates Pras and Wyclef Jean as well. Sometimes her flow was so rapid, the words were indistinguishable. But Hill never stumbled.
Her ability to zig-zag from an explosive delivery of tricky raps to her soft touch on “I Only Have Eyes for You” – the 1959 doo-wop hit for The Flamingos – to the springy pop of the radio rendition of “Killing Me Softly” exemplified Hill’s chameleonic gifts.
That she’s seemingly able to enjoy being onstage without being as fiercely wound as in the past bodes well. Her new song “Consumerism” indicates that she still has something to say. Now she just needs to run with it.