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Sold-Out Lilith Fair bowing out with its pride intact

But its artistic and cultural legacies remain contentious

Toronto Star, Friday, August 20, 1999 - D13

By Betsy Powell and Ben Rayner
Pop Music Critics

Can't fault Lilith Fair for quitting while it's ahead.

Unlike Lollapalooza, the testosterone-infused granddaddy of '90s touring festivals to which Sarah Mclachlan's all-gal caravan is most often compared, Lilith is bowing out with its pride intact.

The third Fair launches a two-day stand at Molson Amphitheatre tomorrow, with a lineup that includes mainstays McLachlan and Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls, Dixie Chicks and Torontonians Deborah Cox, Renann and Zoebliss.

Both 16,000-capacity shows have sold out, as have all four previous Toronto dates in the tour's history.

By comparison, when Lollapalooza limped through town on its disappointing final outing in 1997, it drew less than 10,000 concertgoers.

Although McLachlan's festival is going on indefinite hiatus with a rosy commercial track record, its artistic and cultural legacies remain somewhat contentious.

For each pundit who praises Lilith as a progressive or revolutionary move for "women in rock", there's an equal number who take issue with those statements.

Here's a brief breakdown of the Lilith Fair debate:

* Lilith as starmaker. Hitching their already speeding wagons to the Lilith juggernaut certainly didn't hurt such platinum-plated performers as Crow, Jewel, Shawn Colvin and Paula Cole.

But the only performer who has truly risen to prominence -- eight million copies of 1997's Lilith-synergistic Surfacing sold, an armload of Grammys and Junos and at least one comparison to American suffragette heroine Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- alongside the festival is its founder. McLachlan's perpetual presence in the media eye has kept Surfacing in the Billboard Hot 100 ever since.

More peripheral performers, however, from Luscious Jackson and K's Choice to Liz Phair and Lisa Loeb have remained (at least in terms of sales and public recognition) just that: Peripheral. And despite the much-touted "acoustic talent search" that gave artists in each city Lilith visited a chance to join the fair, can anyone name the performers tapped to grace the "village stage" in previous years?

* Lilith as pop revolution. Yes, Lilith raised the profile of female artists, en masse, in the eyes of a mainstream media eager to spot trends.

To say the Fair ushered in a new era of X-chromosome chart supremacy, though, overlooks the fact that women like Alanis Morrissette and Shania Twain were already doing quite well when it came along, to say nothing of the triumphs of a long list of pop queens from Betty Carter and Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin and Carole King to Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde.

Is it really moving forward, then, to posit the idea of women playing music as something novel and revolutionary?

The festival did dispel the myth that you couldn't make money on an all-female bill, and it drew hordes of women who wouldn't be caught anywhere near a moshy male-bonding zone like Edgefest.

Whether the bulk of that new audience buys tickets to events other than Lilith, though, is another question altogether.

* Lilith as victim. When you're embraced by the media as tightly as Lilith Fair and McLachlan where in 1997, the backlash is inevitable, and it wasn't long in arriving.

After drawing flack for their initial whitebread-new-age-folkie emphasis, Lilith's organizers diligently diversified the lineup of the last two festivals, plugging in the likes of Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Bif Naked, Cibo Matto and even Hole for various dates.

On the other hand, Lilith and McLachlan hobbled their own cause when they started playing up to the festival's sanctimonious "girls' club" stereotype, publicly propagating the sisterly "us against them" mentality they kept denying Lilith represented.

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