Rock the Bells (Toronto) was supremely disappointing

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I’m about as huge a fan of the Rock the Bells series as anyone else.  I was jazzed when it first came out, have written enthusiastically about it every chance I’ve gotten.  But sadly, my faith has been broken.

Despite an embarrassing lack of promotion (as you can see below, the Toronto show was not even listed on the main festival website), I still managed to find out about it, and buy tickets to the Toronto show.  Boy was I disappointed.

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And yes, the Toronto show comes fully branded, with tickets stating that it was a Rock the Bells event, and ads at the venue showing the Guerilla Union branding.  The lack of publicity around the event, let alone the lack of even a mention on the RtB website meant we had no idea of the lineup going in.  We knew at the minimum, that Lauryn Hill and Nas would be there; that Nas would be accompanied by AZ, Pete Rock and DJ Premier; and that some “special guests” may show up.  Nope.

The show was set to start at 6:30, but we showed up late, knowing that’s the way things go.  No big deal on this front, as it’s pretty standard for most shows, especially big ones.  But there was no openers.  No acts, not even a local group to hype the crowd.  We sat, stared at closed curtains, and listened to some recorded music.  At least the hip hop was good.

Nas finally came on at around 8:15 pm, and actually put on a pretty solid performance.  He played most of Illmatic, and had the crowd up on their feet and loving the energy.  Nas let Premo and Pete Rock do their own thing, battling and hyping the crowd.  Then he gave a quick goodbye and left the stage.  Things were looking good! I figured, at the minimum, seeing Ms. Hill and Nas  would have been worth the hefty price tag.  I was wrong, kind of.

Lauryn Hill’s recent touring hasn’t always met with warmth.  When she came through Toronto in January, Toronto’s major newspaper called her set “self-indulgent” and “baffling”.  This time around, more of the same.  Nas left the stage, and we were left to sit there for an hour and a half, again, staring at some closed curtains and listening to canned hip hop.  I mean honestly, this was Rock. The. Bells.  And this was Toronto.  How in God’s Son’s (Nas reference, get it?) name could they not at least call up K’Naan or even Drake and just have them come out to fill in the blanks?  Fill in the huge gaps in the lineup with someone, so that the audience, mostly having paid over $70 each, doesn’t have to sit around and wait for nothing?

The National Post says that Lauryn Hill’s performance at Rock the Bells was an “epic catastrophe”.  Noah Love writes that:

The sad thing is that Hill’s chief attribute, her powerful voice, remains completely in tact. But two things turned this show into an epic catastrophe:

1. She might have employed the worst sound crew in the history of the concert industry. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps Hill simply wasn’t available earlier in the day to do a sound check and it wasn’t their fault. But I will say this: It is close to impossible to screw up the sound at the Ampthitheatre. I have been going to shows at the venue since 1996, and I can’t remember a time where the sound was an issue. (Weather, on the other hand … )

But something on this night was just awful. The bass and drums were pushed through the roof. Or rather to the roof, where they bounced back, creating a dizzying echo in the crowd below. Hill was barely audible through the ensuing mess. What I did hear from her was strong, but that leads me to the second problem …

2. Wow, Hill is an unmitigated disaster as a performer right now. Again, maybe it was just this show, but she spent the entire performance flapping her arms constantly at the sound people at the side of the stage and at her band. It was beyond distracting and, after some time, outright uncomfortable to watch.

Now, I may not say it was a unmitigated disaster.  However, I’m totally on board with most of the sentiments.  This show was supremely disappointing.  I want my money back, and my faith in Lauryn Hill.  Not sure that either of those will happen.

NOW Toronto, a free alt-weekly with enough street cred to sink a ship feels the same way.  So don’t let it seem like it’s just the mainstream media that has it out for Ms. Hill.  According to NOW,

“The Toronto stop of the Rock The Bells tour at the Molson Amphitheatre was one of the most poorly planned, half-hearted hip-hop events in recent memory.”

Furthermore, NOW says this to summarize the show:

Finally emerging past the Amphitheatre’s supposed 11 p.m. curfew, Hill hewed closer to Miseducation’s original sound this time, but with a new, anxious, rapid fire pacing that befuddles fans and breaks hearts. She flew through Lost Ones, To Zion and That Thing (Doo Wop), flailing her limbs and spewing unfocused energy, and then walked off stage, leaving her band behind.

Confused, angry, and resigned fans began to stream out en masse and, morale-wise, that’s pretty much where the show ended.

Hill closed the night with some Fugees material and the Nas duet – If I Ruled The World (Imagine That) – to swaths of empty seats.

As sad as I am to admit it, I’m one of those people that left before the show was over.   The show had upset me, and beating the crowds was, at this point, more important to me than waiting, and hoping, that Nas had stuck around for 3 extra hours and that maybe they’d perform If I Ruled the World.  I feared I wouldn’t recognize it, much like it was hard to pull out a lot of whatever it was Lauryn was playing on stage.

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