[the sea of waking dreams]

Farewell tour (for now) was a warm embrace

Karla Peterson
ARTS WRITER - San Diego Union-Tribune
19-Jul-1999 Monday

Booted from the Garden of Eden for refusing to kowtow to Adam, the Lilith of legend might be humankind's first wild woman. But the Lilith of Lilith Fair is a more pragmatic creature. Think of her as a camp counselor, the one with the sunscreen, the clipboard and the watch set five minutes ahead. She might not be so wild herself, but when the revolution comes, she'll make sure the coups run on time and no one gets hurt.

In its third (and for now, final) season, the all-woman Lilith Fair concert tour has become such a comfy way to spend the day, the good vibes are almost as loud as the music. At Friday's Coors Amphitheatre stop, the lineup was not as exciting as it is in other cities. No Liz Phair. No Sandra Bernhard. No Queen Latifah. But as anyone in the sun-kissed 11,915-member crowd could tell you, it really didn't matter. Even when Lilith wasn't a barnburning musical experience, it was never less than a really good time.

From the warm-hearted set of comfort tunes from fair founder (and concert headliner) Sarah McLachlan, to the celebratory batch of new songs by San Diego's Lisa Sanders, the mood of the 7 1/2 -hour show was cheery and relaxed. In fact, the girls'-club vibe that was Lilith's original calling card is also its greatest strength. For the large female audience, it means the freedom to enjoy live music without offensive T-shirts, loutish stage patter and stage-blocking tall guys getting in the way. For the female musicians, it means touring in a nurturing atmosphere that includes aerobics classes, female crew members and a refreshing lack of hairy-chested excess.

Clearly relaxed and heartened by Lilith's positive energy, Friday's performers were all delighted to be there, and the musicians' mile-wide smiles and giddy energy made up for most shortcomings in the music department.

Truncated sets -- 20-30 minutes for the opening acts, 45-55 minutes for the Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow and McLachlan -- were hard on newcomers and headliners alike. If Beth Orton's sublime 25-minute performance was twice as long, it still would have been over too soon. And while Crow and McLachlan were the souls of time-managed passion, they served their songs at a brisk, greatest-hits pace that made their sets less than fully satisfying.

Unlike the three Dixie Chicks, who were much rowdier than their shiny "Wide Open Spaces" CD would suggest, McLachlan and Crow sacrificed spontaneity and experimentation for solid crowd pleasing. Both women sounded great, and Crow -- in contrast to her rather cranky 1997 show at the Civic Theatre -- took the Lilith spirit to heart, performing with a warmth and vulnerability that really suited her.

But with the exception of Crow's frisky version of the Who's "Squeeze Box," McLachlan and Crow didn't bring many surprises to the table. And neither did Lilith.

While her fellow performers welcomed Crow to the pre-concert press conference by singing a raggedy snippet of "The Difficult Kind," no one materialized for any on-stage harmonizing. McLachlan provided back-up vocals for Luscious Jackson's "Ladyfingers," and the Dixie Chicks brought honorary Lilith Maria McKee on stage for a fierce rendition of McKee's "Am I the Only One (Who's Ever Felt This Way)." Otherwise, the mingling was left for the traditional sing-along finale, which turned out to be an uninspiring version of "Put a Little Love In Your Heart." With all these talented women running around, it would have been nicer if they had run into each other a little more often.

Even with the time constraints and the overbearing sound system, the women of Lilith gave the audience plenty of wonderful moments to file in their musical memory banks. And the high points were not exclusive to the big names.

Local favorite Lisa Sanders got the day off to a glowing start with a vibrant 20-minute set of cagey love songs and smart anthems. Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer sings with more bite than you'd expect, and the band's steely performance of a new song called "Paralyzed" proved there is more to this Texas combo than the overplayed "Kiss Me" would lead you to believe.

Like the tragically over-amplified Luscious Jackson, New York hipsters Cibo Matto were meant to shake up the gals-with-guitars mix, and they did. Their perky rap rants didn't seem suited for broad daylight, but their oddball energy was just the jolt Lilith needed. The same goes for Beth Orton, whose dreamy folk-pop tunes were totally fresh and thoroughly engaging.

With a flashy, backing-track enhanced set that was better suited to the upcoming All That Music & More festival, teen soul-pop queen Mya seemed sadly out of place. But the mood was lifted again by the Dixie Chicks, who were weirdly attired but fired-up, and their gleeful trashing of everything from men to their own airy pop-country sound was loads of cathartic fun.

Once the sound mix settled down and her band backed off, Sheryl Crow soared through emotionally charged versions of "Every Day is a Winding Road," "It Don't Hurt" (which, contrary to its title, left its share of wounds), and the achingly beautiful "the Difficult Kind." Her band is on the faceless side, but Crow has rarely sounded so revealing.

Then McLachlan took the stage, and as she leads Lilith through its last tour, she is exiting with real grace. Touring miles have polished the edge off too many songs ("Possession" comes immediately to mind), but on "I Will Remember You" and the tender "Angel," McLachlan was everything you'd want Lilith Fair to be. She made the audience feel safe and loved, and even if we never see the fair again, we won't forget the feeling that came along with it.

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