Songs of the sirens

Abstract:

The Lilith Fair, a women’s rock-music festival named after Adam’s first wife, sold out its first four shows. Concert promoters, mostly middle-aged men, initially were opposed to the idea of a women’s music festival because they did not think it would feature enough diversity.

Full Text:

They read tarot cards on the grass in the afternoon sun and danced under the moon to the sounds of Tracy Chapman. And before they left the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, Calif., a number of women-faced with lengthy lineups at the ladies’ rooms-took matters into their own hands and simply went into the men’s. Welcome to Lilith Fair, an event organized and headlined by Canada’s Sarah McLachlan, that is changing the nature of summer rock festivals. Dubbed everything from “Chickapalooza” to “Estrofest,” Lilith Fair offers a kinder, gentler alternative to the aggressive mosh-pit scenes of male-dominated events like H.O.R.D.E. and Lollapalooza. At the Shoreline ear- lier this month, the sold-out crowd of 22,000-four girls to every boy-enjoyed eight hours of music by 10 female acts that ranged in styles from jazz and blues to alternative rock and pop-folk. Whether it was the precise folky lyrics of Suzanne Vega’s Luka, the emotive, soaring vocals of Paula Cole’s Me or the funky acoustic pop of Jewel’s Who Will Save Your Soul, Lilith showcased thoughtful, introspective songs. Later, when Chapman sang her anthem, Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution, it seemed to underscore Lilith’s social significance. Said Vega: “I feel like I’m taking part in something historic, something that’s never really been done before.”

In fact, Lilith Fair continues a tradition that began in the 1970s with women’s music festivals featuring the likes of folksingers Holly Near and Ron- nie Gilbert. But those events were small, even quaint, by comparison-socially conscious, Birkenstocked gatherings that had little commercial impact within the music industry. By contrast, Lilith Fair-named after Adam’s rebellious first wife-is an economic force to be reckoned with. The first four dates of its 35-city North American tour are sold out, in 10,000- to 22,000-seat venues, making Lilith already this summer’s biggest ticket. By the time the all-woman tour rolls into Canada next month (playing Toronto on Aug. 15 to 16, Montreal on Aug. 17, Calgary on Aug. 22, and winding up in McLachlan’s home town of Vancouver on Aug. 24), a rotating roster of 51 acts will have given nearly half a million concert-goers an antidote to the angry messages of testosterone-fuelled rock.

Ironically, it was the raging, emotional blasts of Alanis Morissette that paved the way for Lilith’s more hopeful brand of fem-pop. Ever since Morisset- te’s Jagged Little Pill album hit sales of 15 million copies, the music industry has begun waking up to the commercial potential of singers like Jewel, Cole and McLachlan. Still, Terry McBride, McLachlan’s Vancouver-based manager and a partner in Lilith, remembers encountering resistance to the idea of an all-woman tour when he began booking venues last September. “Most con- cert promoters are guys in their 40s and 50s,” says McBride, “and some didn’t think an all-woman tour offered enough diversity.” According to Vega, who was around during pop music’s earlier flirtation with female musicians in the 1980s, the same attitude prevails at many radio stations. “A lot of program- mers are older men who think of women as a ‘type’ of music,” she says. “They don’t see that women play many different styles.”

That diversity comes through loud and clear in Lilith’s lineup, especially on the smaller, secondary stages that feature up-and-coming talent. McLachlan and McBride also show a commitment to Canadian artists. Montreal’s Lhasa, an expatriate American of Mexican extraction, may well be Lilith’s most exotic addition, blending Hispanic, gypsy and Parisian cafe music like a globe-hopping Edith Piaf. Meanwhile, Dayna Manning of Stratford, Ont., only 18 and still in braces, has a spirited, confident debut album of modern folk, Volume 1, out on EMI. Mudgirl, led by Vancouver singer Kim Bingham, leavens crunching guitars and slamming drums with a sunny, buoyant chorus on songs like the rocking This Day. And Tara MacLean, also of Vancouver, sings rich, moody ballads for the same record label, Nettwerk, that has fostered McLachlan.

But Lilith’s most singular new Canadian talent is Vancouver’s Kinnie Starr. Combining hip-hop beats, choppy rhythm guitar and provocative rap, Starr wowed the crowd at the Shoreline with a solo set. Relaxing backstage after her per- formance, Starr was enthusiastic about Lilith’s feminine focus. “It’s nice to be around other female players to see what they’re doing, what equipment they use and just to talk,” she said. “When I go into a recording studio and it’s only men, I feel intimidated. Here, I feel totally safe and confident.”

That sense of community is exactly what McLachlan had in mind when she con- ceived Lilith Fair last summer, with a successful trial tour of four cities. At the same time, with corporate sponsors who donated money to charities rang- ing from an AIDS organization to a rape and incest hotline, Lilith is making a highly visible statement about its organizers’ social concerns. But McLachlan does not see her baby remaining a girls-only club for long, and says she wants to broaden it in future to include male singer-songwriters. “There are a lot of great men out there like [Toronto musician] Ron Sexsmith, who maybe aren’t getting all the recognition they deserve,” she says. “I’d like to bring them into the fold and spread it around.”

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