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Lilith Kickoff Much More Than A Campfire Sing-A-Long

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.

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