Fugees, Hammersmith Apollo, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

Glittering past, uncertain future
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The Independent Culture

It was as if nigh on a decade of feuds and monster success had never happened. Just as in their 1996 performances around the breakthrough album The Score, Wyclef Jean ran across the stage ahead of his bandmates to hype up the crowd.

Indeed, the trio kicked off with the early Fugees number "Nappy Heads". Such an entrance testified to the bonds that still tie these New York children of Haitian immigrants, a tiny minority given a voice by the group whose second album became hip-hop's biggest seller.

The trio combined hip-hop, soul and reggae into intriguing, yet accessible, new shapes. Personal differences then split the group for nine years, a situation not helped as Jean and Lauryn Hill became stars in their own right, while Prakazrel "Pras" Michel pursued a more low-key career.

Hill's more melodic direction has been hampered by unstable behaviour that resulted in an awful two-disc live album punctuated by rambling monologues and tears. An electric performance earlier this year showed that she was getting back on track, though the follow-up to her solo smash, 1998's The Miseducation of... remains a distant prospect.

Jean has continued to be a driven man, proving his talents with all manner of projects, most recently an album of traditional Haitian Creole music. His cousin Michel, on the other hand, has enjoyed just one moment of glory, with the hit single "Ghetto Superstar", itself written by Jean.

Such disparity of fortunes was reflected in different approaches to this European tour that came after only a couple of US reunions. It was essentially a double act, with Hill sashaying near the stage's edge, at certain moments looking like she might topple into the photographers' pit. Michel hung back, often leaning against the drum riser. Apart from his one claim to fame, he barely delivered a verse all night. He did, though, try a little crowd surfing, albeit with security holding his ankles.

Again, Jean would upstage him. For the infectious, if oddly titled, club tune "Perfect Gentleman" ("Just 'cos she dances go go/ Don't make her a ho, no"), the consummate showman appeared at the back of the venue on the shoulders of another security man. They made a slow procession through an ecstatic crowd, later to finish the number from the balcony to set a new standard for audience interaction among the megastars of hip-hop.

It made up for amateurish audio quality, more akin to a reggae sound system than sophisticated pop rap. True, The Score relied heavily on covers; "Ready or Not", "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman, No Cry" allowed the Fugees to cross over. Yet harder tracks maintained their credibility among the heads. Any subtlety of production or witty interplay, though, was lost amid teeth-shaking bass and echo that muddied their vocals.

More melodic numbers were better performed. The set was almost an equal split between Fugees numbers and solo material. Hill was especially vibrant, as the honeyed vocal of her recorded material was transformed into a primal cry.

She and Jean came together to preview the forthcoming single "Take It Easy", the only evidence of new material, which featured a sparkling rhythm. It suffered, though, from a lack of hooks. At least you could make out the words, as Jean maintained that money had not changed them. "That ain't blood on your shirt, that's ketchup," he challenged the rappers who have traded on gang iconography. Michel has a verse on the record, but tonight he could not rouse himself from where he leant at the back.

The Fugees, then, retain the boundless energy of their previous incarnation. The trio reminded us of their place in combining hip-hop with R&B, being both more memorable and unpredictable than the pretenders the Black Eyed Peas. However, what the Fugees' purpose is nowadays remains to be seen. Certainly, it seems that one of their own members needs to be convinced.

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