[the sea of waking dreams]

Crow soars while others flutter

Globe and Mail Music Critic
Monday, August 23, 1999

Who was that promoter who once told Sarah McLachlan she couldn't have another female artist open for her? That small act of denial spawned a mighty offspring in Lilith Fair, McLachlan's travelling festival of popular music by women that rolled through Ontario Place over the weekend.

Lilith Fair, which began as a personal crusade, has by its third and final year become a major summer industry that has played to over one million people, thrown off three prominent compilation albums, and delivered over $2-million (U.S.) to charitable causes devoted to women. (On Saturday, McLachlan presented cheques for $15,000 to Toronto's Red Door Shelter and Ernestine's Women's Shelter.)

Change, of course, is one of the themes of the exercise. After Lilith Fair, the orthodoxy goes, no man will be able to discriminate against "girl bands" (or female singers backed by male instrumentalists, which was the overwhelming norm for Saturday's show).

Viewing the stage as a chrysalis, there were lots of smaller metamorphoses on view. Sometimes the result was a butterfly, times a moth.

Toronto's Renann showed what can happen when a successful fine-art curator becomes a singer-songwriter. Good things, mostly, at least when the material smoulders as Renann's does, like the last cigarette a night gone too far. The sensibility, and the voice -- a deep, leathery yawl -- recall Leonard Cohen, and the wit was decidedly dry. "I get so sick and tired/ Being overadmired," was a perfect opening lyric for a woman who won the Lilith Fair acoustic talent search, but whose prize was a 20-minute set on an awkwardly-placed "Village Stage" that was smaller than some people's bathrooms.

On the main stage, Deborah Cox showed how little can happen when a talented young singer (also from Toronto) digs into some truly lame material. Her slick, tepid set came to life briefly with a soulful cover of Cyndi Lauper's True Colors, but an absurdly long high note in the final bars turned a fine performance into a circus stunt. A moth, decidedly.

The Dixie Chicks came on at first like well-schooled Nashvilleans, with spangly costumes, the classic Opry whine of Natalie Maines and the flying fingers of Martie Seidel (on fiddle) and Emily Robison (banjo and slide guitar). Then they turned wicked with some giant inflatable dancing girls (correct neither politically nor anatomically) and "a special song for all the wife-beaters out there." This apparently unrecorded number had a rollicking chorus that began with the words, "Earl had to die." Go, butterfly, go.

On to the Indigo Girls, whose unadorned appearance, folkie roots and activist-left politics put them close to the core of what many people (including, probably, many fans) associate with Lilith Fair. Their proficiency at switching between the raw (Amy Ray's stuff) and tender (Emily Saliers's stuff) was impressive, if you could swallow the oatmeal-plain sincerity of it all. The Indigos threatened to turn their set into Lilith Fair, the Pocket Edition, by inviting practically everybody on the bill to guest on some number or other. The fans were in ecstasy for the soft three-part harmony of Love's Recovery (with McLachlan) and the set-closing Closer to Fine, the duo's hit anthem from 1989. A pair of moths, and proud of it.

Cheryl Crow's set showed how a great studio artist can sometimes be even better live. Her extended performance of Every Day is a Winding Road was the most electrifying thing I heard all day. Leaving Las Vegas was stretched out to similarly good effect. Crow's stage presence was powerful yet sardonic, as though she wasn't going to be fooled into taking the commotion beyond the stage too seriously. She couldn't have helped but notice that the biggest responses came for stuff from her first album, not the latest one. In any universe outside Lilith Fair, this butterfly would be the unquestioned headliner.

In LilithWorld, however, only McLachlan can have the final set. Her career has moved into a different dimension since she gave birth to Lilith, and her appearance was received like something akin to a divine visitation. It's scarcely possible to separate her image from her music any more, though it's certain she did not achieve her present status of sanctity simply by handing out cheques to battered women. There's an intimacy in her voice that seems to single out the individual listener as the only true recipient of her song. It worked for Sinatra, a male chauvinist par excellence, and it worked Saturday night for the feel-good feminist McLachlan, who blissed out the fans with filigreed versions of several bland ballads, including Angel and Hold On.

In the end, McLachlan did not have the last star turn. That was seized by Melky Jean, the sister half of Melky Sedeck, a hip-hop duo from New Jersey whose older brother is Fugee rapper Wyclef Jean. Melky Sedeck had done a brief, brash set in the afternoon on the Second Stage, wresting a hip-hop rhapsody from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and doing a dynamic cover of Shake Your Booty, complete with a lusty demo of said manoeuvre. Melky Jean reappeared at the end of the day for a group performance of the hymn-like I Shall Be Released, promptly morphed into Mahalia Jackson, and turned McLachlan and all the rest into a team of square, white backup singers. Whoa, Nelly! This black butterfly can bite.

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