[the sea of waking dreams]

Lilith Fair builds community in diversity a last time

Farewell tour pairs R&B and country, folk and rock, fashion and philosophy

By Dave Tianen
Journal Sentinel pop music critic
Last Updated: Aug. 24, 1999

Having successfully launched a musical resurrection of sorts, Sarah McLachlan is about ready to pack up the Lilith Fair tent and go home to be a mom.

Indigo Girls  Photo/Karen Sherlock
Photo/Karen Sherlock
Indigo Girls Amy Ray (left) and Emily Saliers perform Tuesday at Lilith Fair at the Marcus Amphitheater. The show marked the final Milwaukee appearance for the women's music festival.

Lilith Fair upset a lot of macho assumptions about the commercial viability of women's music and certainly helped set the stage for the current scene where some of the biggest draws have names like Shania, Lauryn and Celine. Yet McLachlan's decision to close Lilith to pursue the most traditional of feminine roles is also very characteristic of the festival's atmosphere, which has linked themes of female empowerment with mainstream consumerism and an often underappreciated diversity of musical tastes.

Like the big male caravans it eventually superseded, Lilith Fair carries an attendant caravan of political advocacy groups, and old-fashioned (or perhaps new-fashioned) merchandisers. Hence, right across from the tent for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) is a tent for Tommy Hilfiger. The booth hawking vegetarian bumper stickers is snug up against the line of women waiting to order a large pepperoni from Shakey's.

That same sense of community and bridge building is most evident in the festival's evolving musical lineups. The featured performers at the Milwaukee Lilith Fair Tuesday night were apprentice R&B stylist Deborah Cox, the fast-rising country trio the Dixie Chicks, cult folkies the Indigo Girls, pop/rock star Sheryl Crow and, as always, McLachlan herself. If there's another musical event this summer that cross-pollinates audiences as freely, I've missed it.

This year, Canadian R&B siren Cox set a record for the longest run by a hit single ("Nobody's Supposed To Be Here") on the top of the Billboard R&B chart. On Tuesday, Cox showed why. Although hardly the vision of a pagan goddess in tight black plastic slacks, she managed to wow the crowd with a remarkably sustained note during a winning reading of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors."

The Dixie Chicks, who have won about everything in Tennessee except the Nashville mayoral, followed Cox. You might have expected the Chicks to be out of their roost at Lilith. But one of the great things about them is their ability to wed traditional musical forms with non-traditional attitudes. For most of their set, they had the crowd on its feet with a mix of bluegrass, Bonnie Raitt's "Give It Up or Let Me Go" and old style weepers like "Tonight the Heartache's on Me."

Interestingly, in two previous Liliths I'd never seen anything that passed for overtly anti-male sentiment. The Chicks filled that void nicely with a nasty little bonbon called "Earl Must Die" and dedicated as a "special little song for all the wife beaters."

Perhaps the most proven of Lilith crowd pleasers are the Indigo Girls. The Indigos, if you haven't made their acquaintance, are sort of the lesbian Everly Brothers. I mean that only half in jest and certainly not as a put-down. They offer the same mix of acoustic folk, rootsy rock and old-time country filtered through marvelous harmonies.

The downside on the Indigos is that they have a tendency to preach at their audience. I happen to believe that in a better world, Texas killer Karla Faye Tucker would have had her sentence commuted, but also can't imagine anyone not sharing that opinion being swayed by the stridency of the Indigos' new rant, "Faye Tucker."

If you've seen Sheryl Crow in the last year, you've seen her distancing herself from the fantasy object packaged in her videos. Crow has cut her hair, donned the leather pants and gotten in touch with her inner Joan Jett. It was perhaps too often overlooked that Crow grew up in Chuck Berry country, and the Berry influence, bled through the Rolling Stones, is very evident in her present sound. Tunes like "A Change (Would Do You Good)" "My Favorite Mistake" and "Anything but Down" now come out attacking with pumped up drums and muscular guitars.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 25, 1999.

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