Several months ago, I wondered, what would it be like to go with a local musician to a touring artist’s show? In music journalism, we spend a lot of time talking about influences. But could we take that conversation one step further, opening the door to an experience that refreshes or sustains inspiration?
Cut to last night, when local singer/songwriter K.Raydio joined me for Ms. Lauryn Hill’s show at First Avenue. The concert rendered us speechless, save for the word “incredible”; from the first song (“Everything Is Everything,” reworked as a surging Afrobeat jam) to the Prince cover finale, I could barely take it all in.
Before the show, we hung out at the Depot, and I asked K.Raydio (Krysta Rayford) about her career. She’s been making music for six years, and her work is certainly touched by Ms. Hill; their catalogs share a strong message of empowerment, and they both wield a certain soul. Along with other favorites (Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Janelle Monáe, and more), Rayford said, “Ms. Hill paved the way.”
She remembered, “The first time I ever heard the Fugees was at [St. Louis Park’s] Roller Garden. I remember skating around the rink going, ‘This is so cool!'” Around kindergarten, Rayford had seen Sister Act 2, the 1993 comedy Hill co-starred and sang in as a teenager. “I had a lower voice as a kid,” Rayford said, “and seeing her in Sister Act 2 was like, ‘Yes! Women with lower voices can do this!'”
We talked about Hill’s talent (“She’s in a whole lane of her own”), her everywoman/superwoman nature (“Women can see themselves in her, and yet they aspire to be her”) and the timelessness of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (“I always listen to [it] going, ‘Wow, this could’ve come out today’”). Rayford had some particularly wise words about Hill’s reputation, which is often roped to her tax issues and lack of punctuality: “The press may present Lauryn Hill in a certain way, but there’s so much depth to being an artist […] What about Lauryn Hill as a person? We have to be careful, as a society, with how much we analyze and we don’t empathize.”
We also talked about K.Raydio’s music, which she’s been playing for about six years, ever since moving back to Minneapolis from UW-Madison. She said, “I have a lot of new music coming out in this next year,” and she’s been playing a bit of it live (for example, she shared some music last Tuesday, opening for Devata Daun). If you’re just getting into K.Raydio, 2014’s One Drop, produced by O-D, is a well-arranged, funky place to start.
After dinner, we headed to the Mainroom, where opener Noname (from Chicago) had a few more songs. She’s part of the MLH Caravan, a tour/project Ms. Hill put together to lift up music and art from all over the African diaspora. Noname joined the tour for three stops, and artists from Nas to Kehlani will soon swoop in for their own respective performances. It was great to see the audience click with Noname last night; crowd energy especially makes her flourish. When she rapped “Forever,” which shouts out Ms. Hill’s song “Everything Is Everything,” she couldn’t keep a smile off her face.
Yesterday was my last show with @MsLaurynHill and I got to be direct support! I'm humbled to have shared the same stage as you. Thank you!
— Noname (@noname) September 5, 2016
About 20 minutes after Noname’s set, Ms. Hill’s DJ got to work, spinning Marvin Gaye (“Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]”), Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”; “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough), Stevie Wonder (“My Cherie Amour”), and a great stretch of Afrobeat. “I know we’re in the purple city,” he said, and he dropped “I Wanna Be Your Lover” to cheers.
Less than an hour after her set was scheduled to begin — a delay most of the audience accepted with relief — Ms. Lauryn Hill took the stage. Her band (including three horn players and three back-up singers) walked on first. Then, light flooded the stage left staircase, and Shakira Marshall appeared at the top of it; she danced her way down and through the crowd, shaking her hips to the polyrhythms. “This is the first time Lauryn Hill has ever used dancers,” Marshall told LargeUp in April, and the crowd looked delighted to see her.
After a brief jam, Ms. Hill walked on, and she looked completely in control. She wore a black leather jacket and a majestic, sparkling dress, her hair cut short and her presence room-filling. Starting with “Everything Is Everything,” she made it clear that she’d reworked her music, sometimes to the point where it got hard to recognize every song — but what she delivered was always an experimental, diaspora-inspired delight. K.Raydio and I got goosebumps.
From there, Hill performed a helping of music from all over her catalog (and beyond), including the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” and her Kanye-sampled “All Falls Down.” K.Raydio and I had talked about how much we appreciated Prince’s no-phone rule, but even we had to fight pulling them out of our pockets when Hill covered Sade. When they weren’t leaning toward Afrobeat, the band had sounded Sade-influenced all night, smooth and just a little space-y, so it felt perfectly natural to hear Hill slide into “The Sweetest Taboo.” To our delight, she continued singing Sade, performing “Your Love Is King” just before switching over to “Jamming” and “Is This Love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers.
It is lovely to see black women bandleaders pulling off such incredible shows. When Hill would call out a chord or point to one of her band members, I’d flash back to Erykah Badu at Eaux Claires Festival, constantly calling out directions for her band. K.Raydio told me that a Badu/N.E.R.D./ Janelle Monáe concert had changed her life several years ago. She said, “Lena Horne, who was one of my idols growing up, had just passed away that week. I remember sitting in the audience, and Erykah Badu starting singing “If You Believe (Reprise)” from The Wiz, which is where [Horne] played Glinda the Good Witch, and I just remember looking at my best friend and crying. This moment clicked, because it was like, ‘You need to pursue what your heart is telling you to pursue.'”
Still following that path, Rayford is hoping to go full-time with music this year. She played First Avenue as part of the Klituation on July 15, but she told me her huge goal is to headline the stage, saying, “First Ave is what keeps me in Minneapolis.”
With the Revolution having played First Ave the three nights before Ms. Hill, I had to agree. (In fact, I’d said almost the same thing outside the building the night before.) Few cities have this kind of place, where it feels like you’re stepping into legacy every time you enter; this week, we were treated to four nights of magic in a row.
While watching Ms. Hill, I realized that I’d forgotten music can be that good. It’s like your heart feels the whirl of the singer’s soul; like the performer was fated to share this; like anything can happen, but the artist is always holding the reins. I felt it back when I saw Prince at Paisley Park — especially the part about a bandleader being in control — but it’d been snuffed since April. Leave it to Lauryn Hill to rekindle that wonder.
Hill also brought back “Nothing Compares 2 U,” ending her roughly two-hour show with some words and a song for Prince. “This city is still mourning his loss, like we are,” she said. “Still celebrating his life, like you are […] we know that you guys loved him first. That First Avenue loved him first.” She moaned for a second, looking close to tears. “I love him, too. God bless you guys. Thank you so much.” And then those chords.
Lauryn Hill performed Nothing Compares 2 U.
— K.Raydio (@kraydiomusic) September 5, 2016
I loved seeing music with a person who feels and respects it. K.Raydio talked about “the power of a performer” can make an experience that feels even bigger than a record; as an artist, she prefers performing to recording, so she has a special interest in how concerts work. We both agreed last night couldn’t have gone any better.