It's 3:20 p.m. on August 23, and within seconds of arriving at Fiddler's Green, where the Lilith Fair is taking place, the phrase "odd man out" leaps to mind. There are women everywhere--women alone, women in pairs, women in clusters--and although I'm hardly the only person in the area who urinates standing up, I'm clearly in the minority. Thank goodness my wife, Deb, is with me to provide cover. That way, at least, I'll seem like a supportive spouse, not an enemy spy.
Inside the amphitheater itself, the sound level is oddly low. Fiddler's is more than half full, but those present are chatting cordially, as if they were black-tie guests at a Greenpeace fundraiser. The tunes being played through onstage speakers don't shout, either; a Cloroxed cover of "Baby, Now That I've Found You" (a 1968 hit for the Foundations) whispers like background music at a health-food restaurant. Confused, I check the schedule I was given with my ticket and discover that the main stage doesn't kick off for almost an hour but that Mary Lou Lord should be getting ready to perform on the so-called B-stage. Within minutes we find her alone with her acoustic guitar, strumming for an exceptionally amiable crowd that sits cross-legged on the asphalt in front of her. Again, the volume is far from high. I've been a stickler for wearing earplugs at concerts ever since a Guns N' Roses gig earlier this decade that caused my ears to ring for three days afterward. But for Lord's showcase, they're about as useful as a vegetarian cookbook at Ted Nugent's house.
After Lord wraps up, we move past a collection of booths run by consciousness-raising organizations such as Planned Parenthood and toward the Village Stage, where the next act, Jepp, is just getting under way. The group, which consists of two men backing up a female vocalist, appears beneath a canopy emblazoned with the Levi's logo--one of many corporate symbols on view in the vicinity. There are also booths for Tower Records, Kodak, VH1, Excite, the American Basketball League and, inevitably, Starbucks. Obviously, the captains of industry have figured out that sisterhood sells. Even a table raising money for the Breast Cancer Fund has a connection to big industry; the folks there are selling raffle tickets to win a VW Beetle that just happens to be adjacent to a booth for (you guessed it) Volkswagen. In an effort to make the prize car Lilith-friendly, the VW workers have placed buckets filled with daisies around it.
The Jepp set is a bit noisier than Lord's, thanks to the presence of an electric guitar, but it's still not what you'd call deafening. At one point the singer wonders aloud if it's okay for her to tell a dirty joke. After the members of her audience (again sitting cross-legged) give their approval, she asks, "If abortion is killing a child, does that mean a guy having a wank is committing genocide?" Then she asks her guitarist to turn up his amp and tells the throng, "Let's dance!" Not a single person does, but they all smile pleasantly as they watch her doing so. Geez, these people are so polite.
At 4:20 on the dot, Lisa Loeb traipses onto the main stage, which is flanked by twin murals featuring a nude woman with a rounded abdominal area--all the better to accentuate Womb Power, my dear. Loeb subsequently shares an anecdote about finding the Lilith Fair CD at a Starbucks and noticing that the first cut on it was hers: "I said, 'Cool.' Well, I didn't actually say cool. But I thought it." (The song she plays afterward is called "Truthfully.") While sitting through this Dr. Laura moment, I look at my watch expecting to find proof that hours have gone by, but it's only been eight minutes. I look at Deb, who's passing the time by reading an educational brochure. Rock on, goddess.
How boring is it? Beach balls begin bouncing around the amphitheater, but the security guards, who at most shows waste no time seizing and deflating them, either don't notice or don't care. Most ticket-buyers are similarly uninterested, but a little boy in a Shawn Kemp jersey (a politically incorrect choice for Lilith Fair if there ever was one) is overjoyed: He's so excited to have something to do that people around him start shagging balls for him. I subsequently bat one ball back into the crowd, prompting Deb to say, "How appropriate--you hit it like a girl."
As Loeb and her all-male backing band finish up, we head toward the B-stage. On the way, I scope out the Lilith Centre, a booth where you can buy a Lilith Fair commemorative book for $21, a tome titled Daughters of the Moon, Sisters of the Sun for $22, and packages of incense and the like sold under the moniker "Lilith Scents." McLachlan merchandise is also on display there, but there's much more of it at Murmurs, which is run by the Sarah McLachlan Fan Club. McLachlan shirts, McLachlan posters, McLachlan photographs, McLachlan postcards, McLachlan eighteen-month calendars, McLachlan knapsacks and McLachlan heart-shaped necklaces are on the block, and business is brisk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Camaraderie only gets you so far, though. When reviewers criticized last year's Lilith Fair as too bland, too white and too heavily weighted toward singer-songwritery artists, McLachlan reacted by adding edgier performers to many of this year's concerts--but not to Denver's, which is arguably the least varied, most homogenous on the tour. All of the women in the Fiddler's spotlight seem like charming human beings; if you accidentally burnt a meal intended for any one of them, I'll bet she'd eat it without a single complaint and thank you for it afterward. But with only a couple of exceptions, listening to their music is like being slowly buried in self-help books. The issue isn't gender: There are oodles of female performers on the scene--from PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney to Lisa Germano and Cheri Knight--who are making vital music. But not enough of them have turned up on a Lilith Fair stage.
Instead, we get McLachlan, who's as kind a hostess as any I've encountered. She compliments Merchant ("We really hate to see her go, because she's such a sweetheart"), she praises Colorado ("It's so beautiful here; you're so lucky"), and she frames her songs as lessons from which we can all learn. One is "about faith and hope and questioning," another concerns "change and growth," and so on. But the music is mainly generic soft rock with a folk edge that's hardly different from the navel-gazing tracks that dominated the airwaves during the early Seventies. I have seen the anti-Christ, and he is James Taylor.
McLachlan loves this stuff, you can tell, and her enthusiasm is infectious; most of the crowd treats her like a queen. As for me, I start nodding off by McLachlan's sixth song--and since I know that the remainder of the set will consist of more of the same, capped by a number where the day's performers will gather together in the musical equivalent of a group hug (a prediction that turns out to be 100 percent correct), I ask Deb if it would be okay to split. I realize that by doing this, I could be unmasking myself as a traitor to the cause. But she readily agrees--because she's about to fall asleep, too. That's feminism, Nineties style.