Lilith Fair’s U.S. kickoff at Portland’s Sleep Country Amphitheater on Friday night was as meteorologically troubled as the fest itself. It was rainy and so cold, fans huddled under Gore-Tex and blankets and Sheryl Crow’s bare arms nearly turned blue. But while the weather matched the dismal state of sales for this reborn “celebration of women in music,” attendees were undeterred in turning the day into a Hot Tub Time Machine moment, blissfully dancing in the aisles and partying like it was 1999, the last time Lilith came to town before going on hiatus.
Lilith has announced 11 city cancellations in July alone due to poor sales, which the tour team ascribes to soft economics all around. But some question if that’s skirting the issue of whether the cultural vein Lilith tapped went dry around the end of the last millennium. The truth probably lies somewhere in between: ticket prices ($41.50-$252) are pricey in today’s economy and a pan-gendered freak movement led by Lady Gaga has kidnapped its share of Lilith’s kids. But the Portland show seemed reasonably full, although reports of Live Nation unloading $10 seats last minute may have come into play.
The resurrected Lilith retains some of the main components that flavored its three-year run in the 1990s: local and national charities receive a portion of ticket sales, a multi-stage village showcases up and coming female acts (Marie Digby, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and A Fine Frenzy held up the B Stage in Portland) and large corporations ply their wares to a parsed out demographic. In a move that was either a ballsy middle finger to critics who dismiss Lilith as a bastion of “tampon rock” or simple opportunistic obliviousness, a tent called “The Lilipad Lounge” offered festival-goers free tampons from fixtures resembling fallopian tubes.
While the demographically correct Colbie Caillat opened the main event, the wild card was country duo Sugarland, which had the most to gain in front of an audience of potential new fans who may have never paused on a country radio station before. Sugarland came to win, putting on a thrilling, full throttle performance that ranged from twang (“Settlin'”) to pop (“All I Want to Do”) to, uh, steam punk (“The Incredible Machine”) which is the theme of their new record, also called The Incredible Machine, out in October. Frontwoman Jennifer Nettles blended a big Broadway voice with sassy down-home charm, realizing Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith dream of knighting the next generation of female performers: she won a contest to play a small Lilith stage in 1999 and in the decade since has become a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning performer.
Erykah Badu came out sporting what looked like a 50-gallon cowboy hat that matched her large echoing voice. Eleven musicians rocked a lush orchestral backdrop and a well-tapped flute master led her four-song set into a Jethro Tull-ian funk fantasia. Badu seamlessly ran through extended versions of her biggest hits, such as “Certainly” and “On & On.” Her stay seemed too short and at the end, she injected a bit of Lilith-style self-empowerment: “Raise up your hands and shout out your own damn name,” she commanded.
Crow’s mellow rock had middle-aged women (and some younger ones, too), bouncing joyously to favorites like “Everyday is a Winding Road,” “If It Makes You Happy” and “Soak Up the Sun.” She opened her set with “Our Love Is Fading” off her soon-to-be-released 100 Miles From Memphis, which signals a visit to blue-eyed soul town (not to be confused with Cougar Town, a television show in which Crow appears and the Lilith audience was forced to watch on big screens between acts.) Two covers came off as clunkers: a droning take on Terence Trent D’Arby’s “Sign Your Name” and an overly cautious version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” The only time Crow appeared to really let loose was when she joined Sugarland onstage to merrily dance about to that band’s hyper catchy “All I Want to Do” (not to be confused with Crow’s also catchy “All I Wanna Do”).
When the night was at its darkest, the stage literally shone its brightest, flooding with white light when Sarah McLachlan appeared, as if descending from the mothership. McLachlan’s power is undeniable in concert: her voice so clear and beautiful, her melodies so rich and meandering, her lyrics so dungeons and dragons. The Lilith founder recently released her first original material in seven years, Laws of Illusion, and is taking the risk of touring her new record on the festival circuit. She smartly stuck mostly to the old favorites — “Building a Mystery,” “I Will Remember You,” “Ice Cream” — while judiciously dropping in a few new songs like “Loving You is Easy” and “Out of Tune,” which didn’t sound like new songs at all. Despite the sharp transition from Sugarland’s rowdy set to McLachlan’s moody meditations, there was a sense of being home when the Lilith founder hit the stage.
As per Lilith tradition, the pack of festival performers gathered to do a final encore. It was “Because the Night,” a track synonymous with Patti Smith, a female singer who has historically bowed out of sisterhood clans in favor of androgyny and a special boys club pass. Like so many things about Lilith, it was hard to tell if this was convenience or commentary.