Ladies First

Lilith Fair returns with a more eclectic sequel

Exactly 10 years ago, the mass media was abuzz with a new phenomenon in the music biz: the sudden rise of women in rock. The startling success of Tracy Chapman's debut album--along with the rapidly growing profiles of Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega, Sinead O' Connor, and Toni Childs--had the likes of Time and Newsweek falling over themselves to proclaim that women had officially arrived. Not to be outdone, Musician magazine even devoted a massive cover story to this development.

Nine years after all this overblown hoopla, the media regurgitated all its sisters-are-doin'-it-for-themselves proclamations for the 1997 launching of Lilith Fair, a festival tour comprising nothing but female (or female-fronted) acts. Once again we were told that women had arrived in the record industry, as if a cursory glance at the Billboard 200 hadn't already proven the point.

The fact is that even in 1988, such "women in rock" revelations seemed hopelessly behind the times. A full decade earlier, in the early days of the punk era, women like Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, The Slits, Tina Weymouth, The Raincoats, Debbie Harry and eventually Chrissie Hynde would take a crowbar to any lingering stereotypes about a woman's ability to express herself in the rock idiom. In light of that revolution, both the 1988 hype parade and the recent fascination with Lilith Fair seem to be more about monetary milestones than artistic achievement: proof that female singer-songwriters can go platinum, or that an all-female tour can kick Lollapalooza's ass at the box office.

In a way, it's unfortunate that Lilith Fair must now be dissected as a cultural groundbreaker as well as a musical event. Tour founder and headlining artist Sarah McLachlan repeatedly swears off any grandiose claims for Lilith, insisting that she concocted the festival idea not to prove a point but simply because she thought it would be a lot of fun. It's a point echoed by Indigo Girls member Emily Saliers during a phone interview with New Times.

"I'd say Lilith Fair was just a blast. It was like summer camp," says Saliers, whose group again joins Lilith after having a big impact when it joined last year's tour midway through its summer schedule. In fact, the Indigo Girls are widely credited with cracking the icy distance that had developed between the performers early in the tour. Saliers and her cohort Amy Ray immediately pushed the tour's performers to join in backstage and onstage sing-alongs that belatedly created the kind of warm vibe that everyone expected from the beginning.

"We've always done that," Saliers says with a laugh. "Even before we got signed, we'd bring our friends up to play with us. And Lilith is the perfect opportunity for that, so right away we went around knocking on people's doors."

The Indigo Girls symbolize both the power and the potential problems with Lilith. Like the tour itself, the duo commands an audience of such intense loyalty that its fans tend to feel like family members. The Indigo Girls' music has become richer and more diverse over the years, reflecting an increased willingness to experiment. In fact, a newly released CD single for the song "Shed Your Skin" includes a quirky, brooding remix by Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. Saliers says both she and Ray are huge Rage fans, and had always wanted to dabble with the idea of dance mixes.

No matter what twists their music takes, however, Indigo Girls--like the Lilith tour in general--tend to get lumped into a nebulous lesbian-folk category by some who get jumpy at the prospect of a bunch of women with acoustic guitars. It's a tough, frustrating stigma to shed, but it's one that Saliers no longer gets too concerned about.

"That stigma about folk music has bothered me in the past, but as I get older, I don't care. I think people tend to group women together in one kind of music. I mean, Lisa Loeb is different from Tori Amos, who's different from Tracy Chapman, who's different from Suzanne Vega."

While many were astonished at the brisk business that Lilith generated last year, it should have been easy to predict. The tour included such commercial heavyweights as Jewel, whose Pieces of You had by that time found its way into practically every American household, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple (whose risque "Criminal" video was already showing up in heavy MTV rotation), Paula Cole, and the popular McLachlan, whose much-anticipated Surfacing album was released to coincide with the tour.

In a sense, Lilith merely proved that if you get several big-selling, like-minded artists on the same bill, the punters will come. There's no denying the gender factor in this equation--particularly when about 80 percent of Lilith attendees were female--but Lilith didn't prove that any female festival tour could work. Just try seeing if a package of the Lunachicks, Sleater-Kinney, Lois, and The Prissteens could pack your average 20,000-seater. No, Lilith merely showed that this particular type of tour, with commercially established singer-songwriters carrying the load, could move the masses. Remember, the mainstream media gushed about Lollapalooza's profound cultural impact back when mega-bands like Pearl Jam and Jane's Addiction were headlining. Last year, when the bill was a bit wobblier, all that nonsense about a gathering of Gen Xers didn't mean a hell of a lot.

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