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Coachella 2011: Ready or not, Lauryn Hill commands the stage

April 15, 2011 | 10:11 pm

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For the last 13 years since her solo debut, "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," the erstwhile rasta-hop goddess Lauryn Hill has been confounding her former bandmates in the Fugees, having many babies with her on-again-off-again beau Rohan (one of the Marley sons), dropping perplexing statements to the press and asking that we all address her as Ms. Hill.

Today she can add another bullet-point, a clearly positive one, to her difficult resume: a comeback set on the main stage at Coachella that satiated her fans, starving for years and at the brink of losing hope. If Hill's loyal followers had been in a Facebook relationship with their beloved, it would definitely qualify as "It's complicated." To love Hill's music was to accept that its creator might never advance her musical  legacy again.

Today's set wasn't without its rough points. In fact, in keeping with Hill's penchant for tardiness, the main stage was silent for nearly 15 minutes after her scheduled start time. Her band came out, then she emerged in a giant sweeping striped dress and a cartoonishly huge necklace -- but it still took nearly 20 minutes for all parties involved to start a song. Hill demanded they "straighten out the energy" and squelch the frequent bursts of feedback issuing from her mike.

Finally all the stage chakras aligned and her band began at a high-energy level that kept up for the entirety of Hill's stay, sometimes exhaustively so, other times thrilling the crowd of die-hards and the casually curious that constituted one of the bigger daytime crowds seen at the last couple of Coachellas.

Armed with at least four horn players, two backup singers and a drummer, the band was Hill's ace, responding to her frequent calls and hand signals for them to amp it up and filling the moments in which she faltered with sheets of brass-soaked hard jamming. Sometimes their playing was so in-your-face, one wondered if it wasn't all smoke and mirrors designed to distract from a limited focal point. 

They also sometimes overwhelmed her at just the moment they should've backed off, like on "Lost Ones" when her staccato flow, punchy and determined, constituted perhaps her best delivery of the night. But all was forgiven when they rescued their wayward leader, as when she couldn't hit the high notes on "Ex-Factor." Tossing her arm out to the side and wiggling her fingers, one of her backup ladies supplied the requisite trill.

Whatever her vocal challenges, Hill is still an arresting performer, bursting with the kind of crackling stage presence that suggests you're watching one of the great, unpredictable eccentrics of pop music. She spun her arms, reached up toward the sky and danced so that her legs made her dress balloon around her body. Her focused glare, almost hostile in its insistence, roved over her audience. If they hadn't liked her show, well, who knows what could've happened. In other words, you're not the only loose cannon in Indio this weekend, Kanye.

But her audience did like it, responding with an exalted roar when she dipped into a couple of Fugees hits, including "Ready or Not." By the time she ended, coasting five minutes or so over her allotted time, with "Doo Wop (That Thing)," she knew she'd locked it in. She started having fun with the finger-wagging chorus, snapping her head to the sudden stops and starts of her band, who backed off a bit, maybe finally secure that their hero could reap what she had sown.

Leaving the grounds, I heard good buzz from fans who were streaming toward other sets. Two Coachella newbies, Mauna Desai and Sabrina Talukder, told me that Hill had been one of the biggest selling points for them. For her set, they staked out places at the front of the crowd, where they saw Danny DeVito dancing.

"She's an incredible performer," Desai said. "There were sound problems, but it didn't matter. Her band was amazing."

"I was so scared she was going to be preachy," Talukder said, referencing Hill's dogmatic bent, in lyrics and interviews. "But she wasn't at all."

RELATED:

Coachella 2011: Cee Lo Green goes long, gets cut off (maybe during a cover of 'Don't Stop Believin'')

Coachella 2011: Striking a pose with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez Group

Coachella 2011: Hello, I will be your constant companion for the next 72 hours

--Margaret Wappler

Photo: Lauren Hill at Coachella on Friday, April 15. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times

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