Lilith Fair-ness

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Sarah McLachlan has only herself to blame. After all, in a country where Baywatch can pass as high drama, her idea to put together Lilith Fair, a pop music road extravaganza spotlighting women artists, was bound to score inordinate media attention on such pertinent issues as goddess worship, sex, lesbianism, sex, man hating and, of course, sex.

Fortunately for us, though, McLachlan's vision was always about the music. So while Lilith Fair -- subtitled "A Celebration of Women in Music" -- is very much the summer's big tour success, outshining and outdrawing everything from R.O.A.R. to Lollapalooza to H.O.R.D.E., it's easy to understand how McLachlan would be irritated by some of the inane witticisms that have been attached to the event thus far. (Come on now, "Gal-apallooza"?) For every article discussing Lilith Fair's artistic merits, there are several others such as the recent wisp of a cover story in Entertainment Weekly, which featured a roundtable-type discussion with tour headliners McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Joan Osborne and Fiona Apple. What could have been an intelligent dialogue on, among other subjects, women artists' unprecedented domination of the charts and airwaves of late came off after editing as little more than slumber party gossip -- prettiness as a marketing ploy, songs about old boyfriends, etc.

"I understand that [the press] needs to make interesting copy, but this whole 'women in rock' thing and how much that's being played up... obviously, there's still so much sexism in the world that we can't just be called a great bill of music," says McLachlan. "That it's all women performing isn't in itself bad. It's just the way it's sensationalized."

Of course, any time several female pop superstars are gathered in one place -- whatever the reason -- a certain amount of femininity and sexuality is going to come into play. Even so, that doesn't take away from the fact that Lilith Fair -- an ever-evolving rotating carousel of over 61 artists that includes the aforementioned acts as well as Paula Cole, Tracy Chapman, Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Suzanne Vega, Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, Juliana Hatfield and others -- is a remarkable representation of many of the best things happening in music today, whether wrought by females or otherwise. And while the Lilith bill addresses a range of styles, from mainstream country to impressionistic folk to modern rock, there is, without question, a distinctly feminist stamp on all of it. To listen to Jewel's multi-platinum Pieces of You, or McLachlan's latest CD, Surfacing, or Cole's hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is to hear a melding of various historical precedents: the Joan Baez/Bob Dylan school of acute lyrical awareness, the lush etherealness born of the likes of Kate Bush and Enya, the country-sophisticate leanings of k.d. lang, the time-honored tradition of Lennon and McCartney pop craft.

Even when the media doesn't seem particularly interested in such details, they aren't lost on the performers. And when you consider the potential logistical problems of a tour on which only one headliner -- McLachlan -- is performing at all of the 35 dates, Lilith Fair is, by all indications, cruising along with remarkable ease.

"It's gone so ridiculously smoothly that I can't believe it," McLachlan says. "There have been no fights; there's no weirdness; the energy's fantastic."

There had been some worries that, with the constant turnover in acts, McLachlan would spend more time orienting newcomers than she would worrying about her own performances. But the role of host is one that she relishes, and she wouldn't give it up for anything. "I don't mind it at all," McLachlan says. "I mean, it's sweet because a couple of days ago a bunch of the artists left -- like Tracy Bonham -- and it's sad. But then new people come in and you get to know them, and it's really cool."

That coming-and-going aspect was, after all, part of the idea when McLachlan came up with Lilith. "I just thought, wouldn't it be nice to put together a festival or a bill showcasing all these great new singer/songwriters -- women who are making music these days," she says. "And it kinda became the huge thing that it is, largely due to my two managers and my agent, who absolutely took the ball and ran with it."

As it turns out, once it came time to implement the concept, the artists were a surprisingly easy sell, even in Lilith's formative stages. According to Newsweek, almost 600 artists wanted slots on the tour. Audiences have followed suit. Thus far there have been pretty much SRO crowds flocking to see the festival, which features two main stages and [at most venues] a third stage sponsored by Borders Books and Music that highlights unsigned but up-and-coming artists.

"One of the nice possibilities of this," McLachlan says, "is to try to give young artists a step up, you know; a chance to play in front of a lot of people. They'll have records out one day, and maybe someone at Lilith Fair will remember."

Given the response to Lilith Fair, it seems almost certain that it will become an annual event. And if the only thing missing from this year's party is male entertainers, well, that could change. McLachlan notes there are several men whose spirits would mesh perfectly with the festival's philosophy: Ron Sexsmith, Peter Gabriel, Freedy Johnston, Neil Young. "Obviously, I'm aiming high here," she admits. "I mean, we haven't asked anybody yet. We've gotta get through this summer's [event] first."

Survival hardly seems to be a problem, though. And -- media puffery aside -- the whole thing seems almost too good to be true. Still, the responsibilities of being the queen of Lilith can get overwhelming.

"Playing last after a long day of music is always challenging," McLachlan says. "It's getting toward the end [of the show] and [the audience is] thinking, 'Man, I got a two-hour drive home. How do I get out of the parking lot?' So we do the songs that get played on the radio a lot, and maybe the new singles. We're playing some really slow songs, too. I mean, I prefer playing slow songs. Everybody's being very attentive."

She pauses and laughs. "At first, I thought they were falling asleep. But, thank goodness, they're just listening."

Lilith Fair, featuring Sarah McLachlan, Joan Osborne, Emmylou Harris, Lisa Loeb, Mary Black and Kelly Willis, begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, August 3, at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $23 to $41. For info, call 629-3700.

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