Sarah McLachlan promised that this year's version of Lilith Fair, her celebration of women in music, would be more musically diverse than last year. She kept her promise, and it was a good thing she did, as acts such as Erykah Badu, Sinead O'Connor, Lhasa, Billie Myers and K's Choice provided the moments of fire and musical interest that kept the seven-and-a-half hour show from seeming like an attenuated campfire singalong.
Last-minute addition Sinead O'Connor kicked off the main stage portion of the show. With her buzz-cut crop, fatigues, combat boots, and a teasingly sacrilegious T-shirt reading "Jesus is Coming, Look Busy," O'Connor (who recently signed a three-album deal with Atlantic Records) looked ready to return to her often puzzling firebrand persona of the early '90s. But hitting the stage with a lusty whoop, O'Connor led her five-piece band (including tin whistler Davey Spillane) through a set that showed she could be charming without loosing any of the intensity that characterized her past.
Smiling and joking with the audience, O'Connor tore through "The Emperor's New Clothes" and wailed a passionate version of her divorce ballad "Last Day of Our Acquaintance" (before which she slyly cautioned the predominantly female crowd that "not all men are worthless"). She was just as impressive on newer songs: "In My Heart" (from Universal Mother) built to a beautiful a cappella cathedral of harmony.
Erykah Badu's female-centric mysticism (her appropriation of the ankh, which she says is shaped like the female reproductive system), lyrics that alternate between new-agey sentiments ("The sun will make the flowers bloom/you are the sun, I am the moon") and self-empowering pronouncements ("I can make it on my own") make her a perfect fit for Lilith, even if her stylish R&B music seemed a little far afield. But her voice is an astonishingly powerful instrument, and the crowd responded to Badu's soulfulness and ability to embrace the sacred and the earthy in equal measure.
If McLachlan is the public face of Lilith, the Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are the tour's political heart. The Atlanta, Ga., duo were clearly crowd favorites, and the group turned in a strong set of hard folk with modern touches. Backed by a band that included the incomparable Jerry Marotta on drums, pedal steel guitar and mandolin and Jane Scarpantoni on cello, Saliers and Ray expanded their sound beyond the earnest Everly Sisters harmonies of their albums. They were also the first band of the night to reach out and embrace the other bands on the bill, calling McLachlan and members of K's Choice to sing on a rousing cover of Neil Young's "Rocking In the Free World."
Co-headliner Natalie Merchant (the only act other than McLachlan to appear at every stop of the tour) was easily the biggest disappointment of the night. With two solo albums under her belt, Merchant is now able to craft a show that does not include any songs associated with her former band 10,000 Maniacs. Unfortunately, she also played a set that was devoid of any energy, humor (whatever her intentions, turning "If I Only Had a Brain" into a dirge does not count) or any compelling reason to pay attention.
Either sitting at the piano, whipping her hair around, or standing stock still at the mic, Merchant couldn't shake her own self-absorbed aura. And she was not helped by the wobbly drumming of Peter Yanowitz, who kept the music from ever finding a rhythmic center. Significantly, her set marked the only time that the audience's attention started to wander. Her current radio hit, "Kind and Generous," wasn't transcendent, but it did manage to reel the crowd back in for a few minutes at the end of her set.
Merchant could learn a bit from watching Sarah McLachlan. The latter's elegantly layered adult pop, with touches of gospel and soul, isn't the type of music you'd expect to bring a crowd to its feet, but it does. There's a genuine warmth to her performance, and a sense that her interest goes beyond the lip of the stage. Indeed, McLachlan has learned a lot in the year since Lilith launched and is a stronger performer for it. There is a confidence to her presence, and she has a surer sense of pacing, moving from the full-band swell of "Witness" to a solo turn on "Angel" (before which she joked, "After a day of great music, I know when to bring you to the depths of depression") to a trio and finally back to the full band for the benediction of "Building a Mystery."
While the main stage was primarily a reprise of the folky pop that characterized Lilith's first year, the two smaller stages were where McLachlan's attempt to diversify the lineup bore fruit. It was there that Lhasa gave the first indication this was not going to be the same old Lilith. Backed by an acoustic guitar and bass, accordion, fiddle and rudimentary drums, Lhasa's songs, with their strains of klezmer, cabaret, folk and gypsy music, had a smoky ambiance. Although she sings in Spanish, her sultry alto made sure there was no mistaking her passion and fire. The overall effect was an absinthe-fevered dream of Tom Waits collaborating with Edith Piaf in Paris before the occupation. You could easily imagine Bogart and Bergman in a cafe exchanging meaningful looks as this music played.
Billie Myers took the stage next. With her exotic good looks and mane of corkscrew curls, it wouldn't take much to dismiss Myers and her hit "Kiss the Rain" as simply the work of the latest video mannequin. But Myers delivered a spunky set of sexy, modern R&B that marked her as an obvious crowd pleaser even before she climbed the scaffolding to engage the grandstand.
Belgian popsters K's Choice turned in a charming set that showed that they are a much better band than their somewhat nondescript album would lead you to believe. Sarah Bettens is an engaging frontwoman, and there was a lovely warmth when she joined her brother Gert in harmony.
All of which goes a long way toward concluding that, despite a few glitches that could be attributed to opening-night jitters, Lilith Fair Version 2.0 proves that the tour's success last year was far from a fluke.