My Seven Hours With Lilith

A chromosome-challenged critic gets in touch with his feminine side.

On the B-stage, Patty Griffin, in the company of an all-male combo of her own, is playing something that sounds like a cross between Meredith Brooks and Pat Benatar. In this context, that's pretty shocking, and the people who've come to see her respond by actually standing up. But just when I think she might do something radical, like challenge the audience, she introduces her final song--a ballad called "Mary" that was inspired by her grandmother. Those music lovers who'd been put off by Griffin's amplification nod their heads approvingly.

HOUR THREE:
The configuration of the Cowboy Junkies is familiar: a female lead singer, Margo Timmins, supported mainly by male musicians. But even though there are as many as nine performers making music at a time, they don't raise much of a ruckus. A lawn mower would have been louder. For her part, Timmins comes across like Martha Stewart with pipes, sipping hot tea and dedicating "Misguided Angel" to a young man who had given her a bouquet of flowers the previous evening. I just hope she's not unwittingly encouraging a stalker. Absorbing this barrage of niceness is a full house that could have been sliced straight out of the demographic for Alfalfa's. They're so quiet and attentive that I stop tapping my pen on my notebook for fear that I might disturb them.

Just before the Junkies' last song, we purchase some consumables at a food stand and are once again dumbfounded by the gracious behavior running rampant all around us. When a woman accidentally drops a dollop of mustard on a stranger's foot, she apologizes profusely, immediately lowers herself to her knees and begins cleaning the offending condiment from the shoe where it landed. As I watch her doing so, I grasp a simple, undeniable truth: Compared to most women, men are jerks. We've been at Lilith Fair for hours and we haven't seen even one drunk, nor have we been hassled or harassed in any way. It's weird--but the kind of weird I could get used to. If only the music weren't so tedious.

HOUR FOUR:
Joan Osborne does something to amend the situation by bringing with her all of the energy that has been missing from the previous performances. The sound mix is lousy, but she overcomes it with a blustery, exuberant exhibition that's less hippie chick than blues mama. Whereas Loeb and Timmins were practically sexless, Osborne sends out a salute to "the makers of the morning-after pill" and grinds her hips to the beat whenever there is one. For me, the only weak moment comes with her obligatory rendition of "One of Us," which is both her biggest smash and her worst song. When she sings the lines "What if God was one of us," light rain starts falling; it's as if the supreme being upstairs were saying, "Would you mind picking up the pace a little bit?"

Paula Cole was another matter entirely; had I been a higher power, I would have hurled thunderbolts at her. She's the worst aspects of Lilith Fair rolled into a single person. Accompanied by three male musicians and an iconic painting of Bob Marley, she throws herself into her performance, but in an utterly phony way; she's probably been diligently practicing her supposedly spontaneous exertions in front of her mirror for years. She beats Dolly Parton's "Jolene" to a bloody pulp, grunting and groaning like Donna Summer in "Love to Love You, Baby"--but whereas Summer sounded as if she were actually having an orgasm, Cole is clearly faking it. After several minutes of Cole's white-girl-goes-native faux exoticism, I notice that Deb is reading a textbook for a class she's taking: the second edition of Differentiated Supervision, by Allan A. Glatthorn.

HOUR FIVE:
Given how fond Cole is of her own voice, it's no surprise that she runs late. But the crew working for Natalie Merchant, who is playing her last show for Lilith Fair '98, makes up for lost time, setting up so quickly that she comes out five minutes ahead of the original schedule. The stage decor is festive, utilizing a big-top motif suggested by the title song of Merchant's latest CD, Ophelia, and various roadies contribute to the fun by dressing up as a ringmaster, a bearded lady and so on. But when they leave, they take most of the good times with them. Merchant makes a couple of mildly witty comments between songs like "Jealousy," but when she's singing along with music made by her (yep) all-male band, she's a stone drag, intoning her hey-I'm-a-poet lyrics like a female Ben Stein. During one song, I realize that I'm sitting next to a bundle of wires and cables that runs from the sound board to the stage. I get through the tune by fantasizing about finding an ax and chopping them to bits.

HOUR SIX:
The second half of Merchant's set is, if anything, even more agonizing than the first. But that changes when she eases into the concluding "Kind & Generous," a song that I'd hate as much as I despise Andrew Gold's "Thank You for Being a Friend," which it resembles, if it didn't have a naa-na-naa-na-naa hook that's catchy in spite of itself. Suddenly, the circus is in town: A clown on stilts juggles, a belly dancer gyrates, balloons drop from overhead, and McLachlan, Osborne, Loeb and plenty more add their voices to the chorus as a going-away gift to Merchant. The result brings home the message that Lilith Fair propagandists have tried to pound home for the past two years far better than any puff piece. Maybe it's not true that these women support and admire each other to the degree this display suggests; for all I know, they get into catfights twice a day. But the apparent camaraderie is bracing anyhow.

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