Rock and Roles

Lilith Fair touts women, but reinforces their traditional place in music.

The place was crawling with chicks.

Short, fat, tall, thin -- they came in droves, making their way from the farthest reaches of distant suburbs and cities, traversing vast parking lots on foot. They came en masse like pilgrims, toting Indian blankets and sealed bottles of Evian. Some brought daughters, some dragged along husbands and boyfriends like puppies on leashes. One by one, they filed into the open air and green grass of Fiddler's Green, which last weekend served as the temporary home of Lilith Fair, the traveling estrogen-fest led by Sarah McLachlan.

Some had made the journey before, were seasoned celebrators of "women in music," knew all the words to all of the Indigo Girls tunes and were comfortable enough to refer to McLachlan simply as "Sarah." Others were new: A steady diet of Oprah and a daily journal-writing regimen had convinced them they needed to pay closer attention to their spirit, needed to bond with other females and maybe even do something zany like get a henna tattoo. Somewhere in the middle were those who simply wanted to see what all the fuss was about, to hear some music and see what their co-worker or classmate meant when she said that Lilith Fair had changed her life. The faithful, the newbies, the curious -- it was one colossal display of femalia.

Lilith had gotten big, no question; she'd reared her pretty head as a force to be reckoned with on the festival tour circuit. Helped by mammoth record sales and Grammy wins by main-stage acts Sheryl Crow and the Dixie Chicks, this year's tour had been the most successful in terms of generating revenue, if not narrowing gender divides in music. In 1997 Lilith Fair failed to sell out Winter Park Amphitheater, which can hold approximately 11,000 people. Last year the tour sold out its one Denver date, filling more than 17,000 seats at Fiddler's; with two dates this year, Saturday was a swift sellout, while Sunday hovered just barely below the capacity line.

At the onset of this summer's tour, McLachlan had issued a decree that this would be Lilith's last. That she and other fair organizers decided to kill the festival in its infancy is admirable, since the numbers would surely have risen for another year or two at least. But they knew that as the venues grew, so, too, would the commercialization -- something they said they'd tried to avoid. So on the makeshift midway at Fiddler's last weekend, cosmetic samples, trinkets and high-priced Lilith merchandise were as readily available as pamphlets on reproductive rights and breast cancer. The week before the event, a radio commercial featured a background of acoustic guitar music while a perky voice boasted, "Lilith Fair is the kind of place where you can walk around wearing Biore facial strips on your nose." Surely, a few were thrilled with the prospect of removing unsightly blackheads and getting empowered all at the same time, but others, who preferred to separate their skin care from their musical experience, grew unsettled.

Lilith Fair had been proclaimed many things. Those who sported hair wraps, naked bellies and temporary "Girls Rule" tattoos while singing in unison with McLachlan were prone to tout it as a day of sisterhood, even if the feeling later washed away as quickly as the decal. A preacher had warned of its dangerous power as a lesbian conspiracy (perhaps even attended by the nefarious Tinky Winky) -- since all of those hairy armpits were certain to corrupt the young women of America. Whatever. It was supposed to be simply "a celebration of women in music." So, rhetoric aside, did Lilith Fair live up to its self-imposed and somewhat sweeping claim?

A more accurate tagline would have been "A Celebration of Women-Fronted Bands With Mostly Male Players and Groups Where Women Are Involved but Play the Instruments You're Accustomed to Seeing Them Play Anyway." But that wouldn't have fit on the T-shirts. The Indigo Girls and their nearly all-woman backing band were an exception to the overwhelming rule that throughout the festival, women sang, played the acoustic guitar, violin and cello and banged on tambourines while the drumming and lead guitar remained boys' play. Cases in point: Though the Dixie Chicks gave a surprisingly enjoyable performance, the threesome's strength was clearly in its vocal harmony and stage presence, while the meat of the music was left to an all-male band. Sheryl Crow played guitar -- pretty well, actually -- but guess who played with her? Yes, a big gaggle of boys. (But, lo, Crow's performance provided one of the evening's highlights with an only slightly adapted version of "Sweet Child of Mine," by Guns 'N' Roses, a band synonymous with gender sensitivity if there ever was one.) Even McLachlan, the earth-mother-moon-goddess of Lilith Fair, possessed the only pair of ovaries on stage during her set. And damn if the Indigo Girls didn't still have a boy doing drum duty.

So in between chilled glasses of tea and large rounds of cheerings, a few in the audience must have stopped to ponder just what business the menfolk had making such a showing at a celebration of women in music. Considering that Lilith had made a point of trying to appeal to a younger generation of girls who might, as a result of attending the show, consider playing music for the first time, it was a mixed message. Yes, girls should play music, but they should play the pretty, girlish kind of music played by pretty, girlish girls. (Again, the Indigo Girls were the exception. But their music is still uniformly pretty, even if they ain't.) The rules for the local talent showcases (posted at www.lilithfair.com/new/ts_localrules.html) provided the best indicator of what Lilith organizers considered women's music worth celebrating: "There can be no more than three people performing." "No amplifiers may be used." "No full drum kits will be allowed -- snares, congas, other single drums and hand-held percussion are acceptable." (Organizers may have wanted to avoid the hassle of loading the bulky sound equipment mandated by large bands. Still, the Web site claims that Lilith had a road crew of more than 130 people, not including the crews of main-stage acts. With all that muscle, it seems that any setup problem could have been worked out.)

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