[the sea of waking dreams]

Lilith learning some lessons

Toronto Star, Aug. 13, 1998

By Ben Rayner
Pop Music Critic

There's a slightly older, wiser and more self-assured Lilith Fair coming our way this weekend.

Also a more battle-hardened and defensive one. Once the good feeling of last summer's $16.5-million (U.S.) grossing, all-female travelling festival had a chance to dwindle somewhat, the people behind Lilith -- festival founder Sarah McLachlan in particular -- found themselves defending their baby against an unexpected backlash.

Last year's Lilith line-up -- heavy on acoustic singer/songwriter types like McLachlan, Jewel, Paula Cole and Shawn Colvin -- lacked musical and racial diversity, the naysayers said. The feminist politics that went along with it had eclipsed the music. It was all abut "making a statement," not art. And so on.

The negative publicity clearly took its toll on McLachlan, who's keeping her media hits few and far between this summer. Apparently, taking on the triple work load of festival performer, organizer and spokesperson was detracting from her original purpose for starting the fair.

"It wasn't any social commentary thing," she told Entertainment weekly recently. "It was that i thought it'd be fun. That's it!"

Ironically, the festival's notoriety has helped Lilith -- beefed up to 12 weeks and 57 dates this year from seven and 35 last summer -- achieve exactly what its critics were crying for.

"The biggest thing this year is we're not trying to prove ourselves," says Dan Fraser, one of three "Lilith men" partnered with McLachlan in mounting the festival (her manager, Terry McBride, and booking agent Marty Diamond round out the group).

"We asked everybody to come and play with us last year. We get knocked around a lot for not being diverse, but it's not like we sat down and said 'We'll only ask these people.'

"Last year, you'd go to Queen Latifah or Erykah Badu and say, 'It's Sarah McLachlan.' And they'd be, like, 'Sarah who?'

"This year, there was no fooling around."

Thus, this summer, Lilith has welcomed to the fold urban artists such as Badu, Latifah, Neneh Cherry and Missy Elliot, alongside the more rocking likes of Liz Phair (who plays both of Lilith's Molson Amphitheatre dates on Saturday and Sunday), Sinead O'Connor, Holly McNarland, K's Choice and Drugstore.

And the festival seems well on it way to another stellar box-office performance. Some 820,000 tickets have already been sold, says Fraser, and organizers estimate between 875,000 and 900,000 people will pay their way in by the time the tour wraps up in Vancouver on Aug. 31. There are also plans to take the festival to London's Royal Albert Hall for a one-off gig in September, and perhaps to Australia for a brief tour early next year.

Here in Toronto, the two Molson Amphitheatre dates -- featuring McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Emmylou Harris, Paula Cole, Phair, Abra Moore, Neko Case, Eden a.k.a., Melanie Doane, Lenni Jabour, Chantal Krevizuk, Mary Lou Lord, Ali Eisner and Swamperella -- sold out weeks ago.

"It's probably the best festival around, I think," says Merchant, a Lilith first-timer.

"There's always something to watch, always some amazing performer to watch. And backstage, there's no ego. Nobody's hiding in their trailer pretending to be the diva mystic or anything...

"The audience is very patient and willing to travel through different dynamics with the performers. They're not, like, 'This is a rock concert and we came to rock! And if we're not going to rock, we're going to talk.'"

Plus, perhaps finest of all, she adds: "They have a massage therapist, and you can make fruit smoothies in the catering room."

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