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In its second season, Lilith gets some

By Jon Garelick

AUGUST 24, 1998:  The New York Times sends a reporter there to see whether he can pick up girls. The New Yorker follows a gaggle of overdressed fashion editors who were invited by the acne-treatment sponsor. And post-feminist Sandra Bernhard, flame-throwing in her latest HBO special, implies Lilith in her spin: "I just don't know how much more of these little waifish alternative singers I can take." Remembering Joan Jett and Ann and Nancy Wilson, giving them credit for inventing the road ("There was no road before them"), Bernhard spits out, "They did shit that would break these little bitches in half!"

So it was a bit of shocker for this boy, accompanied by his wife, to hit Day I and then a bit of Day II of the Great Woods edition of Lilith Fair ("A Celebration of Women in Music") last week (August 11 and 12) and feel . . . well, liberated. No, we didn't get the sharpest line-up for the fair. No Missy Elliott (whom Bernhard gives her due), no Liz Phair, no Erykah Badu. When Neneh Cherry canceled, she was replaced by the Fugees' Lauryn Hill, who in turn canceled and was replaced by second-stage act N'Dea Davenport.

The typical complaint about Lilith is that it doesn't bring enough color or enough noise -- Missy and Neneh being the tokens, Liz and Luscious Jackson being the "punks." Forget Sleater-Kinney or Nashville Pussy, we don't even get L7.

And yet.

When Laurie Geltman (a Boston-based thirtysomething who's dug her share of the road) opened the Mansfield Lilith on the tiny "Village Stage" with the lines, "Hey kids, heads up now/You don't know what might fall," it was a kind of invocation. And right away, this festival mega-tour felt different. On the page, Geltman's song is a downer (it's called "Growing Down"), but coming out of the singer's mouth, borne on her deep-grained vocals, it mixed resignation with defiance, and a kind of cool-eyed observational power that informed her whole set.

When Geltman began singing, she probably didn't see Emmylou Harris take a seat on the grass at the side of the stage. Harris, with her gray tresses, was like a presiding spirit on her leg of Lilith (she's on seven of the 57 dates, in the slot previously held by Bonnie Raitt). She was ubiquitous, sitting through several of the tiny 20-minute sets by acts on the second and third stages, showing up to sing harmonies all over the place. It was fitting that one of the music's most esteemed underdogs should serve as benevolent fairy godmother to the young crew at Lilith.

The feel-good vibe felt genuine. All day long, backing musicians as well as frontpersons sat in with one another's bands. And the show was designed so that none of the acts on the three stages overlapped. It was the most human-scaled all-day-fest tour of its type that I've seen. "This is the best gig I've ever been involved with," Harris said at a pre-show press conference, and she repeated that later on the mainstage. And Lilith inventor and headliner Sarah McLachlan explained her search for opening bands, and the charity donations on the tour: "I'm really lucky. I had a record contract handed to me on a platter when I was 19." She later gave checks of $15,000 each to local women's shelters Transition House and Casa Myrna Vasquez. (The tour has clocked over half a million for local charities thus far.) When someone asked at a pre-show press conference about the need for "heavier" bands on the bill, Jill Cunniff of Luscious Jackson answered, "It's still a love fest, whether it's heavy or not."

Yes, you could wish for heavier, but not because of a lack of strong talent. The reason for heavier is that that's this tour's calling. Here are thousands of teenage girls, ready for anything, more open to new experience that most audiences, and trusting Lilith like no one ever trusted Lollapalooza. Certainly I've never been happier at a concert than I was Tuesday night during Luscious Jackson's set (recalling the bliss of seeing the Jesus Lizard's David Yow commandeer the Lollapalooza mainstage a few seasons ago); and never more miserable than when I was watching Natalie Merchant. It's not just because Lilith would be a better show with Sleater-Kinney or Sarge or dyke punks Team Dresch (though it might) -- it's that these girls are willing to check out anything and deserve the opportunity. I count some of my strongest concert experiences as those that were not only divinely balanced (thanks, Luscious Jackson) but also overpowering and somewhat incomprehensible (oh, Yow!). I figure the Lilith kids deserve the same thing -- the opportunity to see something they've never seen the likes of before.

So count it as nothing more than an opportunity missed. Lilith is better, and so it should be better. When Beck was added to the HORDE tour, Widespread Panic quit and some of the audience went into a snit. But the only negative word I heard at Lilith was a girl giggling "This sucks!" as Abra Moore's band cranked out their alterna-buzz, or Chantal Kreviazuk jokingly referring to Liv Tyler as "bitchface" in a between-song anecdote about the Armageddon soundtrack. (Maybe Sandra Bernhard should be on the tour.) Otherwise, the sister thing was working. Circles of teenage girls dancing during Letters to Cleo's typically supercharged set ("You're asleep and I'm awake/Everything is so great!" Kay Hanley screamed). And Kreviazuk leading a backing chorus of Hanley, Bic Runga, Luscious Jackson, and the audience in a round of the girl summer-camp sing-along "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

"It's the march-on-Washington high," my wife said. I never marched on Washington, but, far from threatened, I felt more the giddy liberation of . . . not necessarily roles reversed, but at least the tables turned. It was like hearing for the first time Richard Pryor impersonating white people. Or watching Do the Right Thing and seeing, in its opening shots, Harlem through a black director's eye. It was subtle or not-so subtle shifts in perspective, some of them comic -- like the venue's posting all the large restrooms for women and relegating men to long lines for the port-o-potties. Or the plump, bearded man with glasses who wore the T-shirt "Fat Dyke Chicks Rule." It was the downright considerate scheduling of events. It was the privilege of hearing how the girls talk when there aren't any (or too many) boys around.

"Hi, I'm Jewel," said Syd Straw on the Village Stage. "Maybe you've read my book." And then she added about the Lilith experience, "I didn't know what to expect -- a sea of breasts? I didn't know!" The downtown-New York folkie chanteuse (now living in Vermont) was a fount of one-liners in sets over both days, and not the only one to make fun of her lack of sales. ("You know the words!" said Melissa Ferrick on Day II. "You must be the 500 Soundscan records I sold!") Straw's humor and vulnerability came through on songs like "Toughest Girl in the World" -- "I'm not the toughest girl in the world -- I try, sometimes it works." Then she said, "I should have told my friends who were going to meet me that I would be right across from the Bioré acne-strip stand!" And then, with violinist Dan Kellar and drummer Woodie Geissman from Geltman's band helping out, she got into an impromptu "Some Girls," with impromptu lyrics, "Lilith girls are the sweetest . . . I can't imagine Lilith girls being rude or bitchy or out of their minds!"

So no, there was none of the incendiary danger that a Courtney Love or a Sandra Bernhard could have brought to the event, none of rock's outlaw personas; but there was plenty of credibility. Bic Runga's music was wan, generic folk, and yet here was a Maori-descended New Zealander with plenty of drive in her words. Abra Moore had the Fiona Apple body type ("break them right in half"), a high, waifish speaking voice that seemed to leap registers out of her control. But she sang strong, hooky tunes in front of a grunge power trio (some of it stuff you could imagine being covered by Robert Plant). N'Dea Davenport was the first to pump it up on the mainstage, pushing contempo R&B. At one point, Emmylou Harris showed up and sang Neil Young's "Old Man" with her. As for McLachlan's closing set, her music is inoffensive -- it floats, hookless and without a lot of rhythm. The high point of her set was the finale, when the women from all three stages joined her for Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

Harris, the country star, fronted her Spyboy band (named after her new album), mixing rocking New Orleans rhythms and trad country tunes. Her voice has gotten pale with the years, better, it seems, for harmony than for lead, and her bass was overamplified in the arena manner (I can't imagine how she sounded out on the lawn). But still, "Love Hurts" came through. "I recorded this 25 years ago when I was a brunette -- I wasn't a brunette for very long. I've earned every one of these [gray hairs]."

The only downer of the day was Natalie Merchant. At a show like Lilith, the signals you send can be everything. Merchant made her first entrance to sing with Harris -- and upstaged her! While Harris stood centerstage in front of a mike, strumming an acoustic guitar, Merchant, holding a hand mike, strolled freely from one side of her to the other to sing to the crowd, eliciting her own cheers.

Merchant is anchoring this part of the tour with McLachlan -- they're the two superstores on this traveling musical mall. She received huge ovations. Her band and arrangements were expert, especially on the Fender-keyboard R&B sound of "Jealousy." But I just don't get her. Her stage was set with circus trappings -- a small, red-and-gold bunting-decorated riser at midstage where she could leap and play to the crowd with her affected choreography. Every movement had the opposite of its intended effect. She invited "my dear friend N'Dea Davenport" out to sing a song, then gently berated her for not knowing the words. She sang snatches of the Marlene Dietrich standard "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" and a chain-gang spiritual, like interstitial thematic touches in a theatrical presentation, but they were more like interruptions than structural glue. At one point she sat down on a streamer-bedecked swing that descended from the rafters and announced that she'd been accepted to "every Ivy league school in New England," then pushed off from the stage monitor with her feet for a good backwards swing as she announced to cheers, "but I chose to be in a rock band!" It was supposed to be a liberating moment for those teenage white girls in the audience to identify with, but all I could hear in Merchant's words were: "I'm not like the rest of you -- I don't have to do this."

If the signifiers are half the battle in the cultural landscape of a tour like Lilith, then Luscious Jackson had it all. When I saw them about six years ago at the Middle East, they didn't seem like much -- bland hip-hop knockoffs, with little more than the Beastie Boys cred they carried from Kate Schellenbach's gig as the "first" Beasties drummer. At Lilith, they were remade.

The most obvious signifier: as distinct from any of the other bands over the two days, all the principals in Luscious Jackson were women, and all with distinct personalities and styles. (They're the real Spice Girls.) Schellenbach, wearing a sleeveless blouse that showed off her powerful arms, pounded the tubs for all she was worth, with authority and funky precision, driving the band. Bassist Vivian Trimble went the outlaw route: punky crushed black cowboy hat, blue-and-white team jersey, faded jeans, and a hyperactive Gail Greenwood style of attacking her instrument. Guitarist Gabrielle Glaser stood off to the other side of the stage, dressed "normal," in a nondescript knee-length skirt and jersey and overshirt. But the details that made it for her were a powder-blue Kangol-style cap pulled low over her eyes, her hair tied back, and her left foot propped up on her effects pedal as she peeled out funky, reverb-and-wah-wah-drenched lines. A bad-ass. Cunniff, meanwhile, wore an ankle-length skirt that didn't keep her from modestly pogoing.

The band cranked. Male percussionists and a DJ augmented the core members. I've never heard more density and detail in their music. Glaser's guitar snaked through the radio hit "Naked Eye." "Citysong" and "Strongman" flowed on their twisty Middle Eastern-mode hooks and slinky beats. In the midst of their deathless rhythms, I remembered the immortal words of their soulmate Beck from some televised awards show a few years back: "I'm here for the slow jams." It wasn't "feminine" -- it was women at work. Think of Bernhard's first impression of Courtney Love: "A woman who's tougher than me!" Or a pal of mine at a Muffs concert a few years back, watching Kim Shattuck sing and play leads: "That's what I want: a woman who can kick my ass on guitar." When Cunniff picked up an acoustic guitar to play the band's folk-poppiest tune, "Why Do I Lie?", Harris again emerged to harmonize on the chorus: "Why do I lie?/Is it just to get by/If I give up my lines will I die?" It was a "vulnerable" line that was also a realization of strength, and at that moment you felt that Cunniff and Harris could have taken on all comers and broken them right in half.

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