By Kevin Ransom / Special to The Detroit News

Adam, the first man, actually had a wife before Eve, according to Hebrew folklore. Her name was Lilith, and she was so insistent that Adam treat her as an equal, the story goes, that she refused to lie beneath him.

That slightly tongue-in-cheek reference provides the fem-power theme for the Lilith Fair music fest, which rolls into Pine Knob Friday for a two-night stand, sporting an all-female line-up.

Well, mostly female - this leg of the tour features the Cardigans, a Swedish band fronted by a female singer, but including three men.)

The brainchild of pop-folk artist Sarah McLachlan, the Lilith Fair's celebration of sisterhood is one of the few summer tours that's doing robust box-office business.

Lilith's success proves that times have indeed changed in a music biz where, not so long ago, women were so marginalized that concert promoters wouldn't even put two women onstage back-to-back.

McLachlan dreamed up the Lilith Fair as an alternative to the last year's bombastic, testosterone-fueled Lollapalooza bill, which was topped by headbangers Metallica and grunge-grinders Soundgarden.

"Lollapalooza is just not very representative of all the talent that's out there," says McLachlan, who's calling from her home in Vancouver. "It's very male-dominated, and a lot of the music is so macho. This year, even H.O.R.D.E. doesn't have any women." In the past, that neo-hippie fest has showcased Sheryl Crow and Natalie Merchant.

"I wanted to celebrate the fact that women have a strong and powerful voice, and organize something that embraced that. I also did it for selfish reasons," McLachlan says. "I'm always so busy with my own music that I never have time to see my favorite artists perform."

The Lilith Fair's eclectic line-up indeed reflects McLachlan's personal tastes. And the line-up changes every few days: McLachlan, the headliner, is the only artist playing every date. When the Lilith Fair kicked off in Seattle on July 5, the bill included Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Jewel and Paula Cole. On July 10, Mary Chapin-Carpenter replaced Chapman for five dates.

By Friday night, Jewel, Vega and Carpenter will have given way to Tracy Bonham, Victoria Williams, Fiona Apple and Lori Carson, among others. In August, Lilith will spotlight Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Joan Osborne, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and Jill Sobule.

"The wealth of female talent out there is really diverse, and we wanted to represent that," says McLachlan, whose new album, Surfacing, was released just two days ago.

McLachlan jokes that, given Lilith's mercurial line-up changes, perhaps fans will be inspired to follow the tour from town to town - just like the Deadheads who once schlepped from one Grateful Dead show to another, knowing that no two Dead shows would be alike.

"Maybe we can get a 'Lilith-head' movement going!," says McLachlan, who's sold more than three million albums in the last five years. That track record gave her the power she needed to pull the Lilith Fair together. When Tracy Bonham initially turned down a Lilith Fair slot because she was busy working on her next album, McLachlan called her at home.

"I don't even know how she got my number," says Bonham, whose 1996 debut, The Burden of Being Upright, achieved gold-record status when it sold more than a half-million copies.

"Sarah said, 'I heard you can't do it, and I'm just calling you to beg you,' " says Bonham, a classically-trained violinist who now makes barbed, cathartic punk-pop.

"That was so nice, and I was really impressed by her enthusiasm. So I'm doing five dates, even though I'm way behind on my next record."

Bonham's success story has drawn comparisons to Tori Amos. Both are formally educated musicians who turned to pop/rock forms and who both write from a decidedly female perspective - although Bonham's music is harsher and more barbed than Amos'.

"With classical music, you're trying to interpret the composer's feelings - you're essentially just mimicking someone else's inspiration," says Bonham, who's calling from her home in Boston. "But when I began writing my own songs, I was able to get in touch with my feelings in a way that I never could have with classical music."

That emotional excavation dredged up some old anger. Consequently, Burdens is, in the words of Billboard's Timothy White, an "emotionally volcanic" album.

"Yeah, I grew up in an environment where I was not encouraged to stand up for myself," says Bonham, the winner of several local music awards in the competitive Boston music scene. "I was so eager to please, and I thought I had to be the sweet girlfriend who never spoke out, and never asked for what I wanted. So I got into some really terrible, destructive relationships."

On Burdens, Bonham vented her spleen for the emotional abuse she endured. She's happier now - and proud to be doing the Lilith Fair.

"At first, I kind of avoided the whole 'girl rock' thing, because I didn't want to be lumped together with someone else just because we're all women. But now I think it's great - we're celebrating the fact that we're cool chicks," says Bonham.

When it came time to sign up corporate sponsors for the Lilith Fair, McLachlan flexed her political leanings. The tour reportedly rebuffed some big-name prospects - including Detroit automakers, Vanity Fair and Tommy Hilfiger - in favor of sponsors who were chosen for their social responsibility or their record of charitable giving.

Ann Arbor-based Borders Books & Music was chosen as a "learning" sponsor, and women's shoe retailer Nine West was selected as a "wellness" sponsor because the company has donated millions to the battle against breast cancer. McLachlan will sign copies of her new release, Surfacing, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Borders in Farmington Hills.

Surfacing is a more spare, more organic effort than her previous album, the multiplatinum Fumbling Towards Ecstacy - where her exquisite, breathy soprano was nestled in shimmery, ambient textures.

"This time, we wanted to create something that was more spontaneous, with more simple instrumentation, like upright bass and acoustic piano."

On Surfacing, McLachlan's lyrics again explore the dark corridors of her oft-tormented psyche - nothing new for this artist. But Surfacing hits much closer to home.

"For me, writing is therapy," says McLachlan. "It's almost as if the purpose of each record is to tear down the walls I've built up. This time, I had to do a lot of soul-searching and go into places inside myself that I didn't want to look at - places that aren't very pleasant.

"But if I'm ever going to change my unhealthy patterns, and change the things about myself that I dislike so much, those are the places I have to go to."

Writer and music critic Kevin Ransom has been a regular contributor to The Detroit News since 1989.

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