When two legendary divas from different generations of music are named as the biggest draws for one of Chicago’s greatest annual music festivals, you just know that sparks are gonna fly.
When those two divas have been dogged by news of recent concert troubles and by questionable reputations that often precede their next performances, you almost expect those sparks to turn into explosions, or perhaps more accurately in their case… implosions.
None of those things happened at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival on Sunday, July 22, as first Chaka Khan, then Lauryn Hill played the outdoor event to thousands of standing, adoring fans, many of whom likely had roamed Union Park for hours before the scheduled 7:25 pm and 8:30 pm starts for Ms. Khan and Ms. Hill, respectively.
There was very little drama, even fewer technical glitches and essentially no fan outrage expressed at the event that could have turned out a lot worse given recent issues dogging the two entertainers’ recent performances.
Chaka Khan, 65, had been plagued recently by poor reviews and unflattering YouTube clips of her earlier festival appearances. Some footage depicted her as surprisingly lethargic with strained vocals and a questionable ability to recall some of her own songs’ lyrics – antics that caused some fans to leave the venues early in disappointment.
On Sunday, in the return to her hometown of Chicago, she was anything but disappointing.
Wearing a body-fitting black chiffon outfit that showed off her famous curves, Ms. Khan opened her show on the venue’s Red Stage with “This Is My Night,” a minor chart hit but a concert fave that has been in her live repertoire for years.
She followed that with three of her No. 1 R&B chart hits – her group Rufus’ “You Got The Love” and “Do You Love What You Feel,” plus her solo No. 1, “What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me?.” In all cases, Ms. Khan hit notes that were very impressive, especially considering folks’ lowered expectations after having seen some of the earlier concert footage.
She didn’t hit all the high notes, though. She smartly left some of the heavy lifting to her three backup singers, particularly one named Tiffany who sang the highs in the pre-choruses on “You Got The Love” and later did the high notes in the bridge solo on “Sweet Thing,” both generating large rounds of applause from the audience.
As a professional, Ms. Khan likely realizes that after 45 years in this business, her voice isn’t what it once was, and it’s much better to give the crowd what it wants while respecting the original integrity of the hits, than it is to struggle through those hits herself – especially on her popular tracks with which people are most familiar.
Not all the song choices were familiar fare, however. In this group of mostly beatnik millennials who’d earlier seen the likes of acts named Japanese Breakfast, Smino and DRAM, it was understandable that some concertgoers retreated from Ms. Khan’s performance while she was doing R&B-leaning songs like “What ‘Cha Gonna Do For Me?” or “Do You Love What You Feel.”
That wasn’t a deterrent for Ms. Khan who dug even deeper into her Rufus catalogue with two mid-1970s album tracks: “I’m A Woman (I’m A Backbone)” and “Pack’d My Bags” (a personal favorite of mine), before returning to the hits with “Everlasting Love” (Tiffany, again, did the honors of tackling the high notes of the final verse), followed by “Tell Me Something Good.”
Regarding that latter track, Ms. Khan knows a crowd-pleasing classic when she hears one, and she got this crowd hyped up by having the men and women sing along to “Tell Me Something Good” by having each group alternate the lines of the song’s popular chorus.
First, she directed the men to sing the words “tell me something good” in as “deep and manly” a voice as they could muster. She wanted them to sound “sweet, yet commanding; soft yet penetrating” – instructions that quickly drew the crowd’s approval.
She then instructed the women to follow with “tell me that you like it” in “that sexy voice no one other than your partner gets to hear.”
On her cue, both gender groups complied, alternating vocals until she took over and carried the song to its climatic finish.
Ms. Khan finished the 12-song set with her most popular tracks, including four more R&B No. 1s: “Sweet Thing,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Feel For You” and an encore performance of “Ain’t Nobody.”
By the time she was done, Chaka Khan had proven to be the consummate professional, having thoroughly entertained the crowd as she breezed through her most popular songs in just over an hour.
And for those doubters who were wondering, she was punctual, sang every song in their original keys and – most importantly – in their entirety, not leaving the stage until it was time.
As for Lauryn Hill, tardiness and bad temperament have always been her Achilles heel.
When Ms. Khan’s show ended at 8:26, that left plenty of time to walk the hundred feet or so from the Red Stage to the Green Stage where Ms. Hill was scheduled to start at 8:30.
With Ms. Hill having been criticized recently for being as late as an hour to start her performances (and given her longstanding reputation for lacking punctuality), the crowd braced itself for a lengthy wait as a DJ serenaded us with a mix of ‘90s hip-hop gems.
At one point, almost as if he sensed the crowd’s anticipation of a late Lauryn Hill arrival, the DJ admonished the crowd to take “all that negativity outside right now!”
Then, at 8:50, the band took the stage and two minutes later, the “Intro” to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill CD surprisingly began with a video of a classroom setting and the famous roll call that begins the album, followed by the East Orange, NJ rapper taking the stage moments later… at 8:53 to be precise (yes, some of us were timing her).
Not only did Ms. Hill begin her show timely (by her standards), but the show was amped from start to finish! Dressed in an oversized white, black and blue plaid shirt with a long, white, floor-length ruffled schoolgirl skirt and a big black fedora, the Grammy-winning rapper came out with lyrical guns a-blazing.
She quickly followed the “Intro” with Track 2, “Lost Ones,” while reminding us that the song and album’s messages are still relevant twenty years later.
Her current tour is being billed as the 20th anniversary celebration of the release of Miseducation, but Ms. Hill took the liberty to deviate from the album’s original song sequence after “Lost Ones,” by going right into Track 13, “Everything Is Everything,” which featured a striking video montage of personal and African cultural images, including home video footage, concert crowds, boomboxes, breakdancers, little black girls playing hop scotch and more.
Like the original album, Ms. Hill’s performance, complete with live band and background singers, took on a very Afrocentric theme, which likely played curiously to the mostly white crowd in attendance. That audience was forced to pay attention, however, while images of police brutality against black men were displayed on the large screens as Hill and her band charged through “Forgive Them Father.”
The moment became even more poignant at the song’s climax as the background singers were implored by Hill in call-and-response chants of “forgive them!” followed by “they don’t know!”
The show was not without its other surreal moments.
For instance, Ms. Hill assumed the roll of musical director and conductor as she ordered a quick stop of the backing track for “Nothing Even Matters” as the song began to play. Later, as the song played to its near finish, the rapper gave a throat-slashing hand gesture commanding the band and singers to an abrupt stoppage of the performance, the intensity of which surprised a number of people in the audience.
The exaggerated hand movements (all directed at her band and backup singers) became even more frequent during “To Zion,” her tribute to her first-born son of the same name.
Then, after performing the album’s title track and as if to explain the past 20 years of professional obscurity and her abrupt retreat from the pop mainstream following Miseducation’s huge commercial and critical success, Ms. Hill gave an exceptional speech that captivated the audience more than any of her song performances had (with the possible exception of the rapid-fire rapping she did on the night’s best performance, “Final Hour”).
In the speech, she explained her inspiration behind Miseducation (to bridge musical and cultural generation gaps), why she felt the album extended beyond herself and has been able to live on (seemingly without her), and why its messages still resonate today.
She then gave the crowd what most of them had been waiting for: “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the first single by a female rapper to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. With a slightly different horn arrangement than the original, the song still sent the crowd into a frenzy, before Ms. Hill bid us a farewell and sent us on our way.
All-in-all, I’d say it was a great night for both Lauryn Hill and Chaka Khan. Neither artist had much to lose in the way of their recent reputations, and both had everything to gain.
Each one gave her all in performances that stepped it up a few notches from the Internet fodder circulating on YouTube and other social media.
Maybe it was a Chicago thing for the city’s native Ms. Khan. Or perhaps Ms. Hill realized that this tour is indeed bigger than her – it’s the album’s legacy that is also on the line. (Note: there was no Drake remix of “Ex-Factor” at this night’s show.)
Or maybe, just maybe, both artists are finally turning a corner… and heading in the right direction with their current tours.
Chaka Khan’s Pitchfork Set List, July 22, 2018:
- “This is My Night”
- “Do You Love What You Feel?“ (Rufus song)
- “What Cha Gonna Do For Me“
- “You Got the Love” (Rufus)
- “I’m a Woman (I’m A Backbone)” (Rufus)
- “Pack’d My Bags” (Rufus)
- “Everlasting Love” (Rufus)
- “Tell Me Something Good” (Rufus)
- “Sweet Thing” w/ “Stay” intro (Rufus)
- “I Feel For You”
- “I’m Every Woman”
- (Encore) “Ain’t Nobody” (Rufus)
Lauryn Hill’s Pitchfork Set List, July 22, 2018:
- “Lost Ones”
- “Everything is Everything”
- “Love” interlude
- “When It Hurts So Bad”
- “I Used To Love Him”
- “Final Hour”
- “Every Ghetto, Every City”
- “Forgive Them Father”
- “Nothing Even Matters”
- “To Zion”
- “Tell Him”(hidden track)
- “The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill”
- “Doo Wop (That Thing)“