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McLachlan's Group: The First Lady of Lilith Fair Sings Her Tour's Praises

by Dan Acquilante

New York Post, Sunday,
August 1, 1999

    It started as an interesting idea that experts said would fall flat on its face-but three years later, the Lilith Fair that lands at Jones Beach Friday stands as one of the savviest concert packages in rock 'n' roll.

    It makes a profit, raises money for charities, offers new acts unheard-of exposure and gives established female artists a chance to hang out together. So why would Canadian singer and tour founder Sarah McLachlan let the concept die?

"Die! That's such a nasty word," McLachlan chastises.

Well, why stop, then?

"We had a three-year plan, right from the beginning," says McLachlan. "I wanted to end it on a really high note, leaving the people wanting more, rather than seeing it go downhill and saying things like, 'Wow it used to be really good.'"

That was the fate of Lollapalooza, and after this year's Woodstock it might also be that festival's epitaph. Those are pretty good examples of tours gone sour, feels McLachlan, but according to the 31-year-old singer, stopping the music for now will also give her some of her life back.

"Lilith is an amazing, fun production to put on," she says, "but it is also an incredible amount of work. We want to have kids, and it's Lilith or babies at this point--I can't do both."

The Lilith Fair is named after Adam's first wife, who, according to Jewish folklore, was so headstrong, so independent, that she was banished from the Garden of Eden. McLachlan has a streak of Lilith in her.

At the genesis of the tour in '96, says McLachlan, a lot of promoters and concert experts said, "Oh, you can't do that"--which, she admits, "made me want to do it twice as badly."

"The idea was to do some shows in the summer, not have all the artistic responsibility myself, and have some of the women I admired and respected play with me," explains McLachlan. "In '96 we did four shows, and it was really fun, and we thought we should do this again next summer--for the whole summer. They have been amazing tours, rewarding and fun. We got to sing with each other and hear each other's music, and we have created a platform where we could get to know each other and hear each other's music."

McLachlan is a people's performer and refreshingly humble. She joked when asked if the tour was a movable party as much for her and her friends as for the audience.

"Yeah, Lilith was a selfish tour. I admit it," she cracks.

On the other hand, many have described Lilith as a music festival with a conscience, because of its charity work.

"'Concerts with a conscience'--I like that," says McLachlan. "We've worked hard to create an environment for the artists and the audience that is friendly, safe and socially conscious. We give room to all the non-profit organizations that we support.

"it is a great platform, but we're not shoving this stuff down anybody's throat, either. If people want to get active, the information is there. Lilith is really beneficial to the communities we play in. For every ticket sold we give a dollar to a local women's shelter. That's usually about $18,000 a show."

It's a far cry from Woodstock, where a small bottle of water cost concertgoers $4.

"When Woodstock was conceived, it was a beautiful thing," she says, "but what happened is it turned into this big horrible commercial madness. It became all about making money."

Not that Lilith isn't a commercial success. In 1997 Pollstar, the concert trade magazine, ranked Lilith as the top-grossing festival tour, raking in $16.4 million for its 38 shows. Last year, Lilith played 56 dates, to the tune of $28.3 million. This year, the tour has been pared down to 40 performances, including Friday's Jones Beach show, and a pair of performances Saturday and next Sunday at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J.

When McLachlan was a struggling young artist, she says, she never really envisioned being a struggling businesswoman, but being the tour's leader "has been a fun hat to wear."

The biggest challenge, she says, has been getting acts to commit to it in summertime--which is when big-name acts make most of their annual concert income.

"That's been where lots of the frustration is--trying to get a certain artist on the Lilith tour," sighs McLachlan. "For instance, we've asked Hole every year, and finally this year Courtney [Love] said yes--and then canceled. Garbage [featuring Shirley Manson] has also been asked every year, and they haven't come through. Same goes for L7, Lauryn Hill, Joni Mitchell and Annie Lennox."

Sometimes, McLachlan admits, it is hard to tell whether the refusals come from scheduling conflicts or political motivation. "We don't always get a straight answer," says the singer.

Some groups, including TLC and a few other R&B acts, have been excluded from the tour because they don't have a band. One of Lilith's few rules is that no act can sing to tracks. McLachlan is vehement about it.

"I believe if it is a live music event, the music should be played live," she says emphatically.

She's also passionate about the legacy of Lilith--and the lessons it should have taught the music industry.

"Women can play on a multi-bill together and be successful," McLachlan declares. "Women can be put back-to-back on the radio, and people will listen and not switch stations.

"The music industry's biggest problem these days is they have totally underestimated the intelligence of the audience, and that most people don't give a s--- about categories."

Continuing her railing, she says, "The record industry is always trying to pigeonhole artists. What they don't understand is that people like music, all kinds of music. The strength of this tour is that the audience gets to enjoy every kind of music--we could have an urban act, and next up there's a country act, after that hard rock and then a folk act. At Lilith there's a pretty broad spectrum of music going on, and our audiences have gotten into all of it."

There are few barometers to verify the claim, but one of them is the Tower Records shack that's set up at every show. The way McLachlan tells it, after nearly every artist plays her set, the chack quickly sells a hundred of the artist's CD's.

"That's a really tangible result, right?" asks McLachlan.

This year's festivities have been pretty much sugar and spice, but Sheryl Crow, one of the biggest stars of this year's Lilith, ran into some rough times when she rocked with the boys at Woodstock.

One week later McLachlan is still upset by what she saw. "We have a satellite connection on our bus, so we watched quite a bit of it, and of course, Sheryl was there, and I wanted to see how it went for her. We were watching the set, and it was just so ugly.

"Sheryl was heckled, she had s--- and bottles thrown at her. And it was so disturbing to see how much pay-per-view focused on the T&A in the audience. It was like, 'Hey, let's make our ratings go higher here.' That concert was all about middle-class angry white boys raging. And for what? It seemed to me to be about complete debauchery.

"Sheryl had a really difficult time. She was really disturbed and very upset by the whole thing. She told me, 'It was hard not to just tell everyone to just go f--- themselves.' She knew the people at home were watching and they had every right to expect her to put on as good a show as she could, but there were also these thousands of guys screaming at her to show her breasts. If she stormed offstage she would have been perceived as a bitch and a prima Donna, but she did consider taking her art, putting it back in a suitcase and taking it elsewhere, because it wasn't appreciated at Woodstock."

Not that everyone at Lilith is an angel, she concedes.

"Yes, we have had incidences where people were drunk," she says. "Last year, two women got into a fistfight, but that was very isolated. We have never experienced masses of angry people venting mindless rage. I thought Woodstock was really scary."

The difference between the two events is simple, explains McLachlan. "At Lilith, an artist is offered an environment of people who love music and musicians. There's a lot of respect...Lilith is just a very different kind of energy. Not to say that angst isn't here--it's different. It's women."

Earlier in the year it was rumored that McLachlan herself was going to be at Woodstock.

"They asked me, and I tried to make it happen, and I'm really glad it didn't," she says.

"It's really sad, because when it was conceived, the whole idea of Woodstock was a really beautiful thing. When people ask me why we don't want to continue with Lilith, or why I wouldn't just hand off Lilith to somebody else, I now say, 'Look at what happened to Woodstock.'"

So is this really the end of the road for Lilith Fair?

"We're not going to completely close the door on Lilith--we might revisit it in five or 10 years," she says.

"The exciting thing about that possibility is that, in that time, there's going to be a whole crop of amazing new female musicians and artists for the fair."