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They Said She Couldn't Do It...

But Sarah McLachlan's brainchild, Lilith Fair, is back this year with more artists and dates than last summer's hottest festival tour.

By ROBERT HILBURN

Yes, Sarah McLachlan has heard most of the condescending names that male music biz insiders coined after she announced last summer's all-female Lilith Fair festival tour.

The 30-year-old singer-songwriter even smiles now at the mention of them: "Girlapalooza" . . . "Lesbopalooza" . . . and the rest.

When it gets to one she hasn't heard, she breaks into a flat-out laugh: "Breast-fest."

"Oh, my God," she says, cackling during an interview here. "Really. Well, there you go."

Then again, it's easy for McLachlan to laugh these days.

Despite industry warnings that an all-female roster wouldn't be viable, the Lilith tour grossed more than $16 million in 38 shows. That's nearly $500,000 a stop--easily outstripping the $294,000 average last year of Lollapalooza, the summer's high-testosterone, alt-rock affair, according to trade publication Pollstar.

Based on that success, Lilith is expanding to 57 U.S. shows this summer, including stops Friday at the Del Mar Fair Grandstand and Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (with a scaled-down seating plan). After the U.S. dates, Lilith plans to test the market in Europe, Australia and Japan. Potential gross on the U.S. dates alone this time around: more than $25 million.

A two-disc Lilith album, featuring live performances from such 1997 tour participants as McLachlan, Paula Cole and Jewel--has grossed another $4 million since its release April 28.

This all adds up to a major break-through for female artists, who for decades have been viewed as secondary players in the male-dominated pop world. For years, radio and record executives believed there was such limited demand for female artists that companies had informal quotas. Where labels would typically sign dozens of male rock bands, they might sign just one female rock band each. Radio stations also generally limited the number of female artists on their playlists--and almost never programmed two records by women back to back.

Women, however, have become an increasingly powerful part of the record market over the last decade, as demonstrated by such mainstream artists such as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion as well as more cutting-edge ones, including rock's Alanis Morissette and hip-hop's Erykah Badu. Radio airplay has reflected this. One reason for this commercial clout is that women over the last decade have become the biggest purchasers of music--up from 43% in 1988 to 51.4% last year, reports the Recording Industry Assn. of America. At the same time, female artists arguably have made the freshest music in the '90s.

Lilith--which drew 70% women, mostly ages 18 to 35--finally brought the concert business to the celebration.

"We always knew that it wasn't true . . . that it was just sexist to think you couldn't have women on the same bill," says three-time Grammy winner Shawn Colvin in a separate interview. "It was just a matter of time before it would be proven false, and I'm only glad I was around when it happened. It's like an albatross being taken off your neck."

McLachlan, who won a best female pop vocal Grammy this year for her recording of "Building a Mystery," agrees. "Sure, I was pissed at one point over all the [names for Lilith], but then I realized that it's all just silly," she says. "When we first started doing this, they said it wouldn't work because women don't buy tickets and don't buy T-shirts and on and on. And there was all this talk about what a risk we were taking. Well, I guess I am just naive because I didn't see it as that. I knew women liked music . . . and guess what? I was right."

The Garden is a cavernous arena that once hosted all sorts of musical and sporting events, but the action has long since moved to newer facilities around Vancouver. So the worn, old building now sits empty most of the year.

Not tonight however. The Lilith staff is using the building as a staging ground for the tour. In less than a week, a convoy of trucks will drive all the equipment--including rigging for three stages and dozens of vendor tents--to Portland for the tour's opening date.

In the midst of all this activity, McLachlan is on a stage that has been set up in one end of the building. She's singing "Adia," the tale of romantic struggle that is her first U.S. Top 10 single. Her six-piece band, which includes her husband, drummer Ash Rood, is accompanying her. Her female black Labrador, Rex, is curled nearby.

McLachlan's music lacks the soul-searching individuality of the '90s' most acclaimed female artists, including England's P.J. Harvey and Ireland's Sinead O'Connor. Yet the best of her expressions of search and desire have the intimacy and grace associated with some of her own personal favorites, including Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.

McLachlan tends to downplay her importance in the Lilith story, but she is the guiding spirit behind the affair, everyone involved acknowledges. She either came up with or signed off on all the key decisions, from the women-only nature of the show to the sizable charity component.

Each of the 57 concerts will feature five (or more) performers on the main stage, with half a dozen or so others on the smaller support stages. Only McLachlan will appear on each show.

Among the headliners who'll be along for part of the tour: Erykah Badu, Natalie Merchant, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Paula Cole, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, Meshell Ndegeocello and Liz Phair. It's a much more diverse lineup than last year. The support stages will also offer such critical or commercial favorites as country music's Martina McBride, dance-accented folk stylist Beth Orton and hip-hop newcomer Imani Coppola. Altogether, more than 50 artists will perform in a remarkable showcase of contemporary talent. (Sheryl Crow, who was on last year's tour, was a last-minute dropout, citing a need to concentrate on her next album. She was only scheduled to do six shows and her absence isn't expected to hurt sales.)

In many ways, McLachlan--whose radiant smile and easy, engaging laugh contrast sharply with the shy, waif-like image of her early album cover photos--is an unlikely heroine for the Lilith story.

If you had drafted a list of 20 women most likely to take the leadership role in putting together pop's first female music festival, it's doubtful that you would have thought of the Canadian.

The Halifax native doesn't have the missionary zeal of O'Connor (who is "thrilled" to be joining the tour this year) or the historical standing of Patti Smith (who performed last year) or the camp-fire enthusiasm of the Indigo Girls (both years) or the headline-grabbing bravado of Courtney Love (who praises Lilith as an important step for women and says she'd love to join the event some year).

Ironically, it is the absence of those qualities that made McLachlan such a good candidate to sponsor Lilith. If she had too high a media profile or too strong a political agenda or too much acclaim or too much of a sales record, she might have been viewed as a competitor and scared others away.

Instead, she's someone whom other artists respect and feel safe with. Emily Saliers, half of the Indigo Girls, only knew McLachlan by her music before the duo joined the tour last year, but she was impressed by McLachlan's spirit and commitment.

"At first in the press conferences, I think Sarah was kind of finding her way around the issues, . . . things like the purpose of the tour, whether there should be men on it [as lead performers]," Saliers says. "Over time, she became very solid in her beliefs and about the tour. She saw it as a celebration of women and music, especially music."

Melissa Miller, vice president of booking for Universal Concerts Talent, which operates the Universal Amphitheatre and 11 other venues in North America, also lauds McLachlan. "Sarah's not the shy, quiet individual that many people think," she says. "She is a very strong, very self-assured, very intelligent woman who doesn't need to go out to the world and prove she is someone. She just is. I wasn't surprised that she would be the one to make [Lilith] happen."

On the day before the rehearsal, McLachlan is rushing around the offices of Nettwerk Records, the small Vancouver label that signed her when she was still in her teens. She's looking for a vacant office to get started on an interview. It's already 1:30 p.m., and she's due at a screening room across town in two hours to see a movie for which she's been invited to write a song. She's too diplomatic to mention the name of the film because she doesn't want to appear to bad-mouth it if she turns downs the project. (Yet she's candid enough later to tell you that the movie was a tedious 3 1/2 hours and that even its matinee idol couldn't hold her interest for that long.)

To save time in the office, an aide has sent out for veggie burritos from one of McLachlan's favorite local haunts. McLachlan looks surprised when asked if she wants mustard with the burrito.

"Mustard?" she asks.

The puzzle isn't solved until she is shown her photo on a recent copy of Rolling Stone, a much-discussed shot in which she appears to have dabs of mustard on her face.

"That's not mustard," she says. "Those are mustard flowers. What happened was we did this photo shoot and there were thousands of little flowers and we started ripping them up and throwing them everywhere. Some landed on my face and that's the photo they chose."

McLachlan pauses and looks at the photo again. "Well, if people think it's mustard, that's OK, too, because I am a pig when I eat. I usually get food all over me."

It's this playful, spirited side of McLachlan that has often been lost over the years--partly because she keeps a low media profile. Spend even a few minutes with her and you'll be treated to her candor and her sometimes earthy language.

She'll tell you about the dream in which she was turned into Courtney Love at a church revival meeting where people started masturbating her. And she'll explain why some of the songs on last year's album, "Surfacing," had such a dark, troubled edge.

The short version is that she broke up with one band member (he's no longer in the group) and fell in love with another (he's now her husband). The long version adds that the new boyfriend was her best girlfriend's ex boyfriend, a situation that greatly strained the women's relationship for months.

Even with all this potential tabloid fodder, however, McLachlan continues to be thought of by much of the pop world as a somewhat delicate waif. "It's like people have this certain image of me and they don't want to change it," she says. "It's so funny actually. In the early days, I was so shy, I didn't even look at the camera or smile. I think a lot of it had to do with not feeling very sure of myself. "So, when I went to Japan not too long ago, I started smiling and looking at the camera and the photographers all went, 'Oh, no, no . . . please don't do that.' They wanted that shy, demure, subservient image."

Not that she seems to care that much.

"For one thing, I live in Canada," she offers in explanation of the media profile. "I suppose if I were living in some place like L.A. and going out to all the openings and being seen around town, I'd probably be written about a lot more.

"But I love Canada. I've never felt drawn to move to L.A. or New York. My friends and family are here, and I'm needy in that way. I love having people I'm close to near me."

McLachlan was born in Halifax in 1968, one of three otherwise non-related children adopted at an early age by a pair of Americans who moved to Nova Scotia, where the husband was a marine biologist.

Though she felt loved by her parents, she had a difficult time fitting in at school. She was often called ugly by her classmates and she withdrew. Music and art were her two comforts.

As a child, she listened a lot to her mother's Joan Baez and Simon & Garfunkel albums and her dad's jazz albums. By her mid-teens, however, she became obsessive about her own discoveries, including Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, as well as the occasional album by such other favorites as Willie Nelson, Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits.

She figured art was an easier path because she had no idea how to get started in the music business. She did a little bit of singing around town with a new wave band during art school, and that led to a contract from Nettwerk.

Terry McBride, a partner in the label and its related management company, says he was intrigued by the teenager's personality. "I've always said there are a lot of great singers, but not a lot of great personalities," he says now. "There was this spark there, the way she talked about things."

The first album, 1988's "Touch," didn't make much of a stir in the U.S., but the second, 1992's "Solace," was embraced both by critics and radio programmers. One reason was that the best moments reflected an intense exposition reminiscent of O'Connor, whose "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" album that year opened a wide door for strong, introspective female voices.

The next album, 1994's "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," was her commercial breakthrough, thanks to exhaustive touring and widespread airplay for "Possession," a single about an obsessed fan.

McLachlan was suddenly in a strong enough position as a live draw to name her own opening act. For the last leg of the "Fumbling" tour, she decided on a relative newcomer named Paula Cole. Little did McLachlan know that this decision would lead to the formation of Lilith Fair.

It has been customary for years in the music world for proven headliners to choose their opening acts. Sometimes they pick an act as a favor to a record company or manager who is looking for exposure for a new artist. Sometimes they do it with an idea of adding variety or to add drawing power to the bill.

In McLachlan's case, she chose Cole in the spring of 1996 because she liked the singer-songwriter's music.

So, she wasn't happy when word started filtering back that some promoters thought it wasn't a good idea to have two women on the show. Couldn't she rethink it, some suggested. "It wasn't across the board, but there was a definite reaction . . . some definite heat," recalls booking agent Marty Diamond.

McLachlan's answer was firm.

She wanted Cole and her own team of advisors--including manager McBride and tour manager Dan Fraser--to come up with a plan where they would, in effect, call the promoters' bluff.

Instead of the normal concert guarantee, McLachlan would assume all the risk. She would take 80% of the gross and give the promoter 20% as a handling fee.

The dates, mostly in 2,000- and 3,000-seat halls, not only sold out, but the spirit at the shows was so strong that McLachlan came up with the idea of adding some more female artists to four shows in the summer of 1996. One of them, at the 5,000-seat Starlight Bowl in Burbank, featured McLachlan, Cole and Suzanne Vega, and sold out in advance. By the time of the final series of shows in Vancouver, McLachlan and her team had come up with the name Lilith and had begun experimenting with eventual Lilith features, including a second stage and a "village" of vendors and information booths.

When Lilith was being scheduled in early 1997, Universal's Melissa Miller believed in the concept so much that she talked Universal into helping to underwrite the tour by signing up for several shows across the country.

"I didn't think it was a risk, but [the Lilith organizers] did face [some] promoters who were fearful of the concept," she says now. "The success of the tour didn't just open a door for women, but I hope it encouraged everyone in our business to be a bit more open-minded . . . to be more willing to take chances. As an industry, we need that."

If the Lilith box-office figures were strong from the start, the spirit of the show took a while to evolve. Critics complained in the early dates that there wasn't enough interaction between the performers--just a series of individual sets.

That changed when the Indigo Girls came aboard about three weeks into the two-month journey.

"They were an amazing influence," McLachlan recalls. "We are all a little bit shy, a little bit hesitant to go up to someone you don't know and go, 'Hey, I love your music, can I play with you?' It's like asking someone on a date. You don't want to get turned down. But Amy [Ray] and Emily did it and they made you want to join in. They lifted the tour to another level."

Besides making promoters and fans happy, the tour donated $1 from every ticket to local charities and is responsible, through sponsorship deals, for supporting all sorts of other social causes.

"I'm 39 so I wasn't really around in the '60s, but I like to think that it was something like this, . . . this spirit," says agent Diamond. "I like to think this tour is making a difference in a world of corporate mergers and buyouts and sellouts and one-hit wonders and all the cynicism."

McLachlan is sitting on the grass outside the Garden before the evening rehearsal, watching Rex run about, when a bicyclist, who is taking a shortcut through the park, spots her.

"You're Sarah McLachlan, aren't you?" he says, tentatively, after stopping.

"That's me," she says, good-naturedly.

"Well, good luck with the tour," he says, before resuming his ride.

She watches him ride away, then looks around to find Rex. "You know, a lot of things have fallen in place for me in a really nice way," she says. "Lilith has given me an awful lot of confidence. It's great to meet a lot of artists who I respect and even have them say, 'Thank you.' I've also turned 30 and gotten married. I feel incredibly comfortable with myself for the first time in my life."

What about the future of Lilith?

"I'll still be involved in the planning, but I'll probably only go out a month or so rather than for the whole thing next year," she says. "In fact, we might take a year off after that. . . . For one thing, I want to have kids.

"But also I don't want to do the same thing over and over. Maybe we could take a year off and then start all over again after that, maybe with a new name and even some guys. If Willie Nelson or Peter Gabriel or Sting wanted to join, I'd have them up here in a second. The idea was never an 'us versus them' thing. It was just meant to give us a turn."

* * *

Lilith Fair with Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Erykah Badu, Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and others, Del Mar Fair Grandstand, 2260 Jimmy Durante Blvd., Del Mar. Friday, 3 p.m. $41 (includes Fair admission). (619) 755-1161.

Also at the Rose Bowl, 1001 Rose Bowl Drive, Pasadena. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. $27.05-$52.05. (626) 577-3100.

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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