Lauryn Hill Sound Academy, Toronto ON January 22

Lauryn Hill Sound Academy, Toronto ON January 22
Heavily reported late starts and preachy stage moments earlier in the tour led to high anticipation paired with tempered expectations for Lauryn Hill's Toronto stop. To wit, the sold-out Sound Academy was teeming with a quiet, nervous energy, the result of waiting ten plus years for, well, anything from the one-time Fugee.

But Lauryn fans are believers. And the believers were rewarded with a two-hour jam-session-y but finely tuned set from Hill and her incredible 12-piece ensemble.

As the last strains of a fundamentals reggae set -- accented with Miseducation-era hip-hop cuts -- faded and nascent spirals of smoke filled the air, Hill walked out to a decade's worth of dormant love. She acknowledged her absence, from Toronto and from music, and launched into a cover of Bob Marley's "Forever Loving Jah" to "bless the stage," following it up with an equally spiritual, gospel-rock rework of "Lost Ones" and quickened interpretation of ballad "When It Hurts So Bad." Each song descended into an extended jam session with Hill warbling and breaking it down, her band veering into nuanced territories, and the chorus line holding it all together.

By now, early criticisms of the tour's "unrecognizable songs" and "un-sing-along-able renditions" were apparent but rendered invalid. Hill's clearly not on a rote, cash-grab comeback tour, as she paid wizened-up tribute to herself in both a revival-esque and contemporary way, substantiating the claims of her artistry to the zealots and skeptics. More intimate, better-sounding venues would do wonders for her vocals -- still buttery hoarse -- but a small space wouldn't hold all that sound.

Among the highlights, "Ex Factor" -- the definitive love/un-love anthem -- soared to new heights for near 15 minutes, budding as a blustery, jazzy piano jam, unfurling into James Brown-ish funk spastics, and ending with a subdued, floaty, R&B coda. Hill's lead guitar player took the original's solo and freaked it, excellently, multiple times. For "Final Hour," the song was dubbed out and lifted into psychedelic territory, lengthened with a rattling ascending sing-out, and "To Zion" rounded out the end of the first set.

Hesitant at first, the crowd was game at this point and were rewarded with a subsequent set of Fugees songs, including "How Many Mics," a cover of the Flamingos' "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Zealots," "Fu-Gee-La," "Ready or Not" and "Killing Me Softly," some rearranged but all verse for verse. Here was where Hill wanted us to sing and rap along, conducting bodies with her hands, flailing occasionally backward to her band to get louder and louder.

After a triumphant "Doo Wop (That Thing)," which Hill turned into a guy-girl sing-off, it was all over and the smiling face of a legend, now certifiable, praised us in return.