Lauryn Hill
CSU Convention Center
March 21

Supporting her amazing solo debut, Lauryn Hill rocked the the Convention Center with a show that combined the street beat of hip-hop, the spirituality of gospel, and the retro grooves of '70s soul.

As the house lights went down, things kicked off with "Redemption Song" by Bob Marley, father of Hill's future husband, Rohan Marley. Hill started singing from backstage before walking out to the slow grooves of "Ex-Factor." Wearing a simple white skirt, black blouse, and red head wrap, she led the band into "Superstar" before a medley of "Fu-Gee-La," "If I Ruled the World," and "Ready or Not." The Stevie Wonder-sounding "Every Ghetto, Every City" followed before the heavy beats of "Lost Ones."

When Hill ran offstage to change outfits, the band got a chance to show its stuff. An MC worked the crowd as two DJs took turns on the turntables. One cut behind his back; even with his shirt pulled over his eyes, he ripped Run-D.M.C.'s "Peter Piper." The other scratched Biggie's "Hypnotize" and climbed over the turntables and scratched from 360 degrees. The drummer did a solo with just snare and cymbals before banging out Audio Two's "Top Billing" on a set of empty five-gallon buckets.

Hill and company slowed things down with "When It Hurts So Bad." More soul revival followed, as she and the band ran through covers of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke." But for every old-school hit, the DJ answered back with new-school flava.

Hill got sentimental and maternal when she brought out her son, Zion, for "To Zion"; a shy Zion promptly ran off the stage. "Doo Wop (That Thing)" got the crowd grooving again. Saving the best for last, Hill performed rousing versions of "Killing Me Softly" and "Everything Is Everything" during the encore.

The original cosmic playas of Outkast opened. Andre and Big Boi played a brief but funky set. "Player's Ball" and "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" had everyone on their feet. They got it from Funkadelic and sang it during "Rosa Parks": "Shit, goddamn, get off your ass and jam" was the theme of the night.

--Michael David

Chris Whitley
Peabody's DownUnder
March 25

As was the case at the Robert Johnson tribute at the Odeon last fall, where he unleashed a furious four-song howl on his 1931 National Triolian steel guitar, Chris Whitley treated the Peabody's crowd to a road-soaked set of bareboned and barefoot blues. What makes his sound appealing to many listeners--and inaccessible to others--is his lack of traditional blues chord progressions. It's always a new path, a sound that strays nicely from the well-worn blues formula while hiding a melody within the din.

As usual, Whitley did little talking. He strummed right into the title cut from his latest release, Dirt Floor, before digging liberally into his prior recordings--even pulling out "Home Is Where You Get Across," a skittish classic from Wasserman's Trios album. On that recording, Wasserman and Primus's Les Claypool played bass while Whitley danced his steel. Onstage, Whitley almost recaptured the entire sound by himself, helped by a unique floor pedal that acted as a synthesized bass drum. Eventually, new cuts found their way in, with "Scrapyard Lullaby" piggybacked to an unreleased recording titled "Fire Fighter."

The bass-thumping dance music from the club upstairs seeped into the room during the quieter, often transcendent moments. Whitley twice mentioned the noise and announced he was cutting out a selection, because his "banjo can't compete with disco." In fairness to Peabody's, this acoustic eye-poke happens in other local venues. Still, it's straight bullshit for ticket-buyers. Based on previous set lists on the current tour, the Copacabana drone may have cost the audience an a cappella version of "Big Sky Country" and a show-closing "How Flat Is the Earth."

The night seemed ready to close quietly with "Loco Girl," but Whitley ripped right into an incendiary version of "Phone Call From Leavenworth." It was modern sonic blues coming from a guitar built seven years before Johnson's death.

--Tim Piai

Leon Russell
Lisa St. Ann & Her Fabulous Band
Wilbert's Bar & Grille
March 27

In all his beard-and-sunglasses glory, Leon Russell huddled at the far side of the stage behind his keyboards like a beatific fry guy. To the other side, he banished an introverted guitarist and bass player. In the back, behind a phalanx of shiny new cymbals, the drummer hid. Oddly enough, Leon and company saved center stage for an auxiliary percussionist--a woman perhaps half the age of the next oldest band member--who tried her best to keep from looking too bored, and who spent as much time smirking and tossing her hair as she did playing.

What sort of gesture was this? The efforts of a band fearing that, without something semi-entertaining to watch, all the men in the crowd might wander down to the Flats? A spark of life amid a sea of beer bellies and beards? In a strange way, the move sort of makes sense for a musician who has made a career out of being a semi-famous, shrouded, behind-the-scenes figure, a session man to assorted '60s and '70s stars, with music and a fan base of his own. But whatever the logic behind the percussionist privileging, it didn't help the music along.

Russell packed his set densely, sparing the crowd interaction and charging through songs with about a nanosecond gap for breath-catching. As for the music, it was just what one would expect from a competent session man--compact, succinct, and with little in the way of surprise. Russell backed his nasal, Willie Nelson voice and honky-tonk piano with the same catchy blues-pop he does on his albums. The blues riffs on keys and guitar were deployed at all the appropriate moments. The bassist kept a steady pulse. Choruses flowed into verses, flowed into solos, and back into choruses, all mannered accurately but listlessly by a band that seemed to be sleeping on its feet.

Hopefully, Russell and cohorts gave Lisa St. Ann a listen. Her (Fabulous) band had its own distraction (a gossamer blond, sizable Mohawk fanning out from the head of a guitarist who played music that punks would have beaten him up over), but they also played with an appealing griminess and a looming sense of possible disaster that Russell's music lacked. The lyrics occasionally toured the uncomfortable suburbs of trite hard rock, but the set suited the cigar-smoking, classic rocker crowd and only really faltered with the last number--an overwrought cover of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence/Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."

--Aaron Steinberg