Ladies First

Lilith Fair returns with a more eclectic sequel

With that in mind, Lilith '98 should be a more interesting experience than last year's edition. For one thing, expectations are higher, and it'll be fascinating to see what, if any, effect that has on the aura of the festival. More important, this year's tour--while still based in the world of sensitive singer-songwriters--is seriously branching out. McLachlan, who took a few unfair hits for last year's lack of diversity, always wanted an eclectic tour, but had trouble attracting hip-hop, R&B and indie-rock artists last year when Lilith still looked like a pipe dream. Now she's got Missy Elliott, the hottest female artist in hip-hop, and Liz Phair, whose indie cred and songwriting brilliance should make many Lilith haters rethink their assumptions.

Elliott's inclusion is important because it helps to achieve what McLachlan always hoped for--a festival where people can be exposed to music they wouldn't otherwise hear. But Phair's presence is particularly intriguing because the underground rock scene she comes from has tended to be the most derisive about Lilith. Courtney Love, never known for her commitment to peace-and-love ideals, has slammed the tour for perpetuating the ghettoization of women in music.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, Phair answered such critiques by calling Lilith "a blessed event." Phair adds that she's so often surrounded by male musicians that she rarely gets a chance to bond with female peers. "I'm so excited to be around other women who do what I do--I don't even care what it stands for."

For Saliers, Lilith also represents a welcome relief from the strain of having to carry a tour on your own shoulders. "To me, it's more laid back and less pressure," she says. "You can meander around backstage, and catch all the other acts, 'cause we're really big fans of a lot of them."

The success of last year's tour has clearly made artists and labels more aware of Lilith's potential to help record sales. Natalie Merchant released her second solo album, Ophelia, less than two months before the June 19 tour opener in Portland, Oregon. Phair, who has spent nearly four years putting together her much-delayed third album, whitechocolatespaceegg, has finally settled on an August release date, which should allow for a nice sales bounce from Lilith.

Also, two Lilith compilations were recently released. The first, Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music, is a two-disc live collection taken from last year's tour. A few obvious tracks are here, including McLachlan's hit "Building a Mystery," but the album is impressive for the way it leans on some of the tour's more obscure highlights: Patty Griffin's "Cain," Wild Strawberries' "I Don't Want to Think About It," and Lhasa's take on the traditional "El Payande." The second Lilith-related release comes from tour sponsor Starbucks, which has issued an 18-song studio sampler of this year's artists. The list, which includes Phair, expert pop tunesmiths like Sam Phillips and Aimee Mann, rock mavericks like Kristin Hersh and the postmodern dance grooves of Luscious Jackson and Morcheeba, offers further proof that Lilith can no longer be branded a folk festival.

Reluctant as McLachlan has been to make a big deal out of Lilith, for many attendees the festival has been a life-altering experience. Consider this fan entry on the Web last year: "Oh, to be a guitar string on that stage. To actually experience the vibration of a single strum." Another enthusiast saw Lilith as a fulfillment of decades of feminist struggle, writing, "Let us not forget women of the past, who carved out a path, through a boulder if you will: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, etc."

McLachlan would probably blush at such sentiments, but she's clearly proud that Lilith proved doubters wrong. If Lilith has received too much credit for breaking down commercial barriers, it deserves much praise for achieving McLachlan's two stated goals: "To create a sense of community that hasn't existed in the past, and break down myths of competition."

Taking both of these ideas further will be an August-September tour that the Indigo Girls are planning, loosely based on Bob Dylan's mid-'70s Rolling Thunder Revue. The Indigo Girls tour, tentatively called the Rolling Thunderpussy Tour, will include a revolving cast of musical friends, including Jane Siberry, Thalia Zedek of Come, Ann Wilson of Heart and possibly Lisa Germano.

As Saliers explains her group's intent, she sounds like she could be succinctly defining the Lilith ideal. "We like to mix things up," she says. "We're the kitchen-sink band."

Lilith Fair, featuring Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Indigo Girls, Erykah Badu, Liz Phair and others, is scheduled for Sunday, June 28, at Desert Sky Pavilion. Showtime is 4:30 p.m.


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