Sarah McLachlan Leads Lilith Fair Into Its Summer Sunset

On eve of 'final' tour, singer brushes off conservative critics, says festival opened doors for female musicians.

As Lilith Fair heads off this week on what may amount to its final run, singer/songwriter and tour founder Sarah McLachlan says she has more than proven her point when it comes to women's place in music.

"Certain old rules don't apply anymore, like you can't have two women on the same bill, or you can't play two women back-to-back on the radio," McLachlan said while taking a break from gardening at her Vancouver, British Columbia, home last week.

If she chose to, McLachlan could argue that her female-centered Lilith Fair festival has spawned such noteworthy offspring as the summer's Alanis Morissette and Tori Amos tour and 1998's Suffragette Sessions outing with the Indigo Girls, Lisa Germano, Ann Wilson and others.

But Lilith has had a much broader impact, McLachlan suggested.

She contended that Lilith — which kicks off its third and possibly final run Thursday in Vancouver — overturned some of the unwritten tenets of the concert industry. That change was one of the tour's original goals.

"We've proven [the old tenets] wrong time and time again," she said (RealAudio excerpt of interview). "There's a huge audience out there that enjoys hearing not two, but many women back to back. So I think it's definitely opened up some doors."

Lilith Fair's '99 incarnation boasts the annual festival's most varied lineup to date. In addition to McLachlan, the event's three stages will feature, on various dates, hard-rockers Hole, singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, country's Dixie Chicks and rapper Queen Latifah, whose song "Life"

(RealAudio excerpt of live version) appears on Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music, Volume 2.

R&B singers Monica and Mya, folkies Beth Orton and Suzanne Vega, and indie rock's Liz Phair — whose "Never Said" (RealAudio excerpt of live version) is on Lilith Fair ... Volume 3 — will also perform at various stops on the festival's 40-date North American swing.

As the tour has evolved from a novelty to a summer staple over the past two years, some say the broad range of artists — not their sex — is what continues to draw people to Lilith events.

The 17,000-seat PNC Bank Arts Center on New Jersey's shore has played host to the fair each year since its debut in 1997. This year, for the first time, the venue will hold two days of shows rather than just one.

"It's a lot of great artists on one bill, just very talented musicians," Krista Newbert, marketing assistant for the Arts Center, said.

"We just had to stick to our guns and try our best to get every different kind of music that we could," McLachlan said (RealAudio excerpt of interview). "It became easier. [Now], as opposed to us chasing artists down, their managers were calling us and saying, 'Hey, we'd really love to come and do some dates.' "

On its two previous outings, one of rock's most successful summer festival tours drew barbs for focusing too heavily on singer/songwriter acts.

In recent weeks, Lilith has sparked more criticism for everything except its talent roster. In May, the anti-abortion group Rock for Life called for a boycott of Lilith, charging that the tour gave money to the pro-choice organization Planned Parenthood. Tour spokesperson Ambrosia Healy denied the allegation, saying that proceeds from the Lilith Fair albums benefit a rape counseling hotline and a safe-sex group. She added that Planned Parenthood has been allowed to set up information tables on the tour.

Then, in June, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's National Liberty Journal decried not only Lilith's support of Planned Parenthood but the tour's namesake as well: It blasted Lilith, a character who, according to Hebrew folklore, was the biblical Adam's first mate but was banished from Eden before Eve's creation, subsequently returning to the garden to tempt Eve. Falwell's publication claimed Lilith is an icon of lesbianism.

McLachlan said she found the criticisms in Falwell's publication "mildly humorous. It was a chance [for Falwell] to jump on someone else's platform and make some noise," she said (RealAudio excerpt of interview). "I'm not really interested in commenting too much, because it will just give him more fodder."

Nonetheless, offering booths to Planned Parenthood and helping both the AIDS awareness group LIFEBeat and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network hotline are among the clear highlights of the tour for McLachlan, she said.

"I [support these causes] in my private life, and this is a way to further that," she said. "Not in the sense of shoving it down people's throats, but ... this information is there, if you want to come and get a little education on it."

According to current plans, this will be the last time that fans can get that information through Lilith. During an April press conference to announce the tour, McLachlan said the outing is going on hiatus and may return in three years, 10 years or never.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert trade magazine Pollstar, said Lilith has built a reputation for offering hitmaker lineups — alumni include Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Paula Cole and Joan Osborne — for relatively affordable ticket prices.

"The tour is capable of coming back, if they can put together the right combo," he said.

But don't hold your breath for the return. After Lilith closes up shop in North America with an Aug. 31 show in Edmonton, Ontario, McLachlan is taking a few weeks off. She'll then mount a solo tour of Australia in late September and October and is holding out the possibility for some benefit shows in November.

Come the new millennium, she plans to duck the spotlight for a while, she said. "I'm going to continue writing and just sort of slow things down a bit. I'm going to do some traveling for pleasure."