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Ladies First

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...
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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.

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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