The last of the Lilith Fairs

Plenty of Chrissie, Sheryl, Sarah and Sandra -- but nary a female drummer.


Gavin McNett
August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

There really is
something relaxed and refreshing about the atmosphere that surrounds the
Lilith Fair. Imagine pulling into a cram-packed rock-festival parking
lot where there's no bad heavy metal blasting, no hasty pre-show binge
drinkers, nobody hacky-sacking at you or winging frisbees at your
head. Imagine a pre-concert tableau with no pit bulls running around
loose, or scalpers scalping, or big, oofy guys with their shirts off,
oofing. But there was something unsettling about the calm as well. You'd
think a concert free of male meatheads and everything they represent
would make young women even more party-happy and careless, and have them
bonking each other with frisbees in a sisters-are-doing-it-for-themselves sort of way.

The pre-concert crowd at south-central New Jersey's PNC Bank Arts Center just assembled
group by little group into an orderly queue, and filed into the school
buses that would take them to the festival gates. The buses were quiet,
save for a restrained murmur of conversation. The lines at the gates
were calm and orderly, with no exuberance or loud talking. It was a vibe
-- and the air was so infernally limpid with it by the time the line
snaked up to the entrance that I caught myself hoping it would all get
horribly ruined somehow. Maybe someone would burp, or make a rude face.
Maybe somebody would dash naked out of the bushes -- or maybe there'd be
a body-airbrushing tent inside, except this time with boys getting free
underpants sprayed on while a crowd of girls snucked and hawed and
snapped photos. Maybe Sarah McLachlan's band would lead off the set with
"I Put a Spell On You," with Sarah popping out of a coffin with a
sulfurous bang, like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and waving a mojo stick at
the crowd.

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No luck on that account. But as school field-trippy as the Lilith
ambiance might've been, it was in one respect the greatest thing I'd
ever seen at a mainstream rock concert in my whole life. The Arts
Center is a 17,000-capacity shed off the Parkway.
Besides the main stage, where the headliners played, there was a fairly
large second setup out on the lawn, a smaller third stage, a vestigial
fourth one with nothing much happening on it and the canonical festival
spread of booths and concessions forming a loop around the perimeter.
And for this event, the whole spread was full of real people.

It's easy to lose touch with the fact, but the crowds at public youth-culture
events can often give you a grossly unrepresentative sampling of what kids are
really like. They tend to be salted with the more popular, attractive,
well-subsidized demographic, which shifts the bell curves for all three
categories several good clicks to the right. The real upper crust around
here, say the top 5 percent from each category, traditionally filters off to
help stock the Manhattan nightclubs -- but the majority just goes
invisible, staying home to watch concerts on MTV simulcast, or simply
to stew in suburban isolation or plot revenge.

But here you had a stunningly normal array of body types and facial features, with a fair
Jersey-suburban distribution of height, weight, blondness,
coolness-ratings. Most of the women were wearing even less than you
usually see at one of these gigs, but it took an effort to notice.
Shorts and a tank top were just clothes here: The prettier girls weren't
all trying to draw attention to themselves, and the less pretty ones
didn't seem overly conscious of their bodies. The cute guys weren't all
swaggering around looking at women's boobs, and the less cute ones
weren't setting themselves meekly away from the action. There were dykes
in profusion, and kids running around. This was cool.

Less cool, however, was second-stage act Samsara, the kind of pro-grade
alternative rock band that gets featured in Volkswagen commercials. It was all
guys, including an ex-Lisa Loeb sideman, with a girl on vocals who
didn't seem to be really playing her guitar. In between not
really playing, she unholstered a prepared comment: "The Lilith Fair is
a metaphor for life. [Pause for effect.] The girls run the show!" Well,
the girls must know what they're doing, since they gave Samsara only a
single show on the tour. But if Lilith really were a metaphor for life,
the tenor would have to be something like "Women still let men play most
of the instruments for them." The female-fronted boy band lineup, it turned out, would dominate the festival all damn day, with nary a female drummer, bassist
or DJ to be found anywhere until late in the evening, when Sheryl Crow
strapped on a Fender Jazz Bass for a couple of songs. Pop diva Mya had a
female lead guitarist -- but otherwise it was frontwomen, dancers and
backup singers all the way through. What a rip! It's been
established at this point that it's physically and medically possible
for women to play the drums, but there must still be some sort of sexist
law prohibiting them from playing for large crowds. The courts should repeal that law; it's unseemly.

The next offering on the second stage was Melky Sedeck, a brother-and-sister hip-hop soul act (and siblings to the Fugees' Wyclef Jean) with a
DJ at the rear. Melky has a voice that could put entire playlists of
soul divas out of work, and she has big-time stage presence -- but if
Lauryn Hill did "Killing Me Softly" with Spartan restraint, it took a
special sort of chutzpah for Melky to follow the example with "To Sir With Love"
(which is about as good as material ever gets), pushing and tugging and
overexpressing until it just sounded like it might've been a great song
once.

Unlike any of Nina Gordon's. It's terrible to have to slag the second-
and third-stagers one after the next like this, but I didn't program the
lineup. I would've had the Donnas or the Raincoats up there or
something, but Nina Gordon, ex-Veruca Salt, sucks even worse than Jewel.
Two acoustic guitars, an expressionless alto and sappy, hookless songs
with lyrics like "I don't know what to do/And it's breakin' my heart
in two." "That's the way it goes/From my head to my toes." "What we've
found is such a precious thing/And that's what I'm trying to sing." "I
still believe in a thing called forever ... " Uck! Bleagh! Heave! She wound
up the performance by singsonging, "I'm Nee-na! Remember who I am!" Makes
you wonder how Louise Post is doing.

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The consumer merchandise segment of the festival comprised hippie
clothes and witchy jewelry, a fully functioning Tower Records outlet,
more hippie stuff, bumper stickers and light-switch plates (!?), free
fake "girls rule" tattoos and displays from the Chrysler Corp.
and Luna Bars ("The Whole Nutrition Bar for Women"). I ate one, and I
suddenly wanted to buy some witchy jewelry and talk about my feelings in
the free-association booth. "I just don't feel affirmed as a person," I
said. "I'm unique, special ... But it's like Lilith sees me as a target
audience -- like it's playing off my desire to see myself as part of a
greater whole, except the greater whole is just a lot of people
congratulating ourselves on being born female, which I actually had
nothing to do with when you get right down to it. Plus, it all just
boils down to watching professional musicians caper around onstage, and
buying things. Not that I don't really like this pill necklace,
but ..." And then it wore off, and who was playing on the main stage but
Suzanne Vega! Cripes -- look at the time! Stupid feelings.

It's amazing how wide-angled and Technicolor Vega's two-piece lineup
seemed after Nina Gordon's. She played simple acoustic guitar with only
a bassist on the side, but the arrangements seemed spacious rather than
sparse -- with each instrument filling its own tonal niche, but always
conscious of what the other was doing. They were loose, but always in
tandem. Vega's voice is thin on record, but smoky and nuanced up close,
and expressive in the way that human voices are when they're really
expressing something, instead of just doing little singerly flourishes
for effect's sake. "Luka" was the big crowd-pleaser, but she managed to
float "Tom's Diner" as an a cappella singalong, which was maybe a bit
grade-school, but cool nonetheless.

Splashdown: second stage, trained musicians doing a Gen-X costume act. Wonderful technique, weird clothes (chrome lami on one; moon boots,
bondage skirt and kneepads on another; big pants on a third, etc.) --
essentially a jumbled mess of styles. Imagine something trip-hoppy with
Spanish guitar and a Pavement riff in the middle, and Fiona Apple
singing jazz stylings over the top. Sample lyric: "I need a sugar high/Oh muh-muh-my!" You can see how record execs would go crazy for it,
but take the gimmicks away and there doesn't seem to be any personality
underneath. Female singer; all-guy band; smells like Berklee grads. No
offense, but why is this a Lilith act?

Segue to Sandra Bernhard on the main stage, complaining about all the
mild, girly women on the program, "Will somebody please give me a sweaty
rock 'n' roll bitch?!"

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Not yet -- wee, fey Mya is on. Mega-cool tap-dance routine at
the end. Seems she studied with Gregory Hines. Otherwise it's pretty
much a Disney soundtrack, except for the groundbreaking addition of a
female! lead! guitarist! Mya was a bit chunky too, and wearing
comfortable pants. Woowoo! Mya is officially punk-rock for breaking the
Lilith barrier.

And then Chrissie Hynde ... But what's to say? Chrissie is punk rock incarnate, and she's approaching the most graceful 50 in the rock biz -- looking about as old as she is, but never really aging, and packing
the same killer voice she's always had. The Pretenders appear to be in
the doghouse with the Lilith staff, which seems just about right
somehow. "Sarah likes us so much, she's invited us back next year,"
Chrissie quipped -- when Lilith is, of course, folding up for good after
this season's run. "You all had better be having a good time," she
asided, "or else I'm going to be in big trouble ..." They also threw some
musical barbs into the ring, beginning with "Popstar" ("They don't make
'em like they used to"), and following up with "Message of Love," the
firmest thesis of gender politics that anyone would whip out during the
entire festival. Troublemakers. The crowd was going a restrained sort of
nuts throughout the set, although the sound was a bit skronky and the
band didn't rock as hard as they might have. And some stray oofy guy in
the orchestra section kept yelling, "Joey!!!" as though Johnette
Napolitano of Concrete Blonde had to come marching out and explain that
she was in a different band entirely. Still, Pretenders is Pretenders,
and it's good, good, good -- though not much like Brigitte Bardot.

A characteristic Chrissie Hynde moment came during the later
power ballad "I'll Stand By You," when a roadie came out during the
middle of the song to hand her a guitar. In the space between the verse
and chorus, her attention came off the crowd for a moment and she gave
him a nod and thank you as the instrument changed hands. It was nothing,
but it also wasn't: With all the carousing and kicking in windows of
police cars and causing of public scenes and beating up of Carly Simon
that the woman's done, it's obvious that she doesn't have to be
reflexively cordial to Sarah McLachlan's road crew in order to keep up
her reputation. But nobody else on the main stage even glanced at the
roadies when instruments were changing hands. Why bother? Well, why not
bother? If you look hard enough, it's possible to see everything
essentially good or bad about human nature springing from that one
simple dichotomy. Common decency is punk rock to the extreme.

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And Sheryl Crow is much better live than you'd ever suspect just from
hearing her on record. Also much smaller. The celebrity height index,
barring athletes, runs from Jean-Paul Sartre (4-foot-10) to John Kenneth
Galbraith (6-foot-8), and one has to wonder ... No, it's immaterial. If this
weren't Salon, which scours out double entendres from its pages like a
prosodic autoclave, one would say something about how every woman in the
audience already knew that size doesn't matter, and that it's the rhythm
that counts.

Well, she's damn little, anyway, and the rhythm does count:
"Anything But Down" was understated but infernally tight, and "Everyday
Is a Winding Road" had an altered, more percussive arrangement with a
mile-wide sound. The P.A. was in better, louder trim than for the
Pretenders' set -- and Crow's keyboard and string players helped fatten
things up -- but much of the set's roaring bigness was pure tone and
musicianship. She sounds like a lessoned player, but not an overstudied
one, and she has a good balance of feel and precision on both guitar and
bass. She also has a corky-haired guitar player with perfect country
chops, and another guy with more of a hard-rock feel, and the three of
them nudge one another's playing around like they're wired up by the
brains. Crow isn't a solo act; she's in the band -- and she gives off the
same odd real-person vibe onstage as Hynde does. Their body
language is even similar: shoulders, not hips. It's an uncommon thing.
Weird to see two people like that on the same bill. Pinnacle of the set:
a "Sweet Child o' Mine" that kicked Axl Rose's skinny white butt all
the way around the arena.

And then, as the last burst of feedback faded from Sheryl Crow's
back line, everyone went home. It was late, and nobody really wanted to
see Sarah McLachlan anyway. "She's boring," one concert-goer remarked.
Another complained, "She never even comes out in the coffin anymore."
Actually -- and I say this as an early fan -- with the whole crowd of
17,000 souls leaping to their feet as Sarah treaded out onstage, and
pretty much staying there wailing and carrying on as the set unfolded,
it wasn't all that much to listen to. She started with "Possession," and
it was grand, and big, and epic, but a bit sterile and elliptical, and
the melody didn't seem to want to go anywhere. She tended to inflect
each song the same way, with a classy lilt and a bit of oceanic sadness
-- and it wasn't until "Building a Mystery" that melodic hooks and
arrangements began to overtake the pearly performances. "Sweet
Surrender" followed, and had some power and emotional range to it, but
glossing over the high spots, every song was a prom song -- a
lighter-flicker -- that sounded a little too much like nothing specific.
It's the Natalie Merchant syndrome: After a while, it all ... starts to ... zzzzz.

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Meanwhile, the crowd was uprooting the arena to carry it up and down the
Parkway in triumph. Sarah would blink, and a thousand people would
expire from sheer, terrible awe. If this is all it takes to catapult a
person into God-popular superheroism -- putting a festival together for
young women to go to -- then somebody please start planning the Medea
Fair, with all snarly, bad-attitude performers, and sweaty rock chicks
who are woman enough to play in the rhythm section. Put Tribe 8 on the
second stage, Joan Jett on the first one, slap a huge Hothead Paisan
banner over the midway and have a grand, roistering party in the
parking lot, with people whipping frisbees all over the place. And if
anyone goes into the speak-out booth to free-associate, a boxing glove
will come accordioning out and bop them right in the nose -- and only
real, needle-type "girls rule" tattoos, thanks. Right next to the free
underpants-painting booth -- unisex, on demand.


Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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