Despite my best efforts, it was awfully hard to walk into Lilith Fair on Saturday with an open mind. I was initially jazzed for this summer’s return of the “celebration of women in music,” but then the underwhelming day-to-day lineups got announced and the show dates started to get cancelled and some big-ticket artists decided to drop out, and by the time Lilith rolled into Irvine, Calif.’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, it felt a little bit like attending the funeral of something that wasn’t quite dead. But festival co-founder Terry McBride asked us critics to check out Lilith for ourselves, and “then see if you want to criticize it afterwards.” So off to Irvine I went, through the Lilith looking glass on a beautiful, sunny, SoCal day. What did I find there, between sets from Sarah McLachlan, Miranda Lambert, local fave Jenni Rivera, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, and ever so many more? Hmm. You mean besides the free tampons?
If I happened to be a user of o.b.’s line of feminine protection, I certainly could have gotten my money’s worth. I could have loaded handfuls of tampons and pads into a free Chevrolet tote bag, then filled out a survey to score a $5 Starbucks gift card. I could have layered in a few dozen snack-size Luna Bars, and washed them down with endless amounts of Crystal Light in my Lilith-branded Nalgene bottle while sitting in the shade from the ABC Music Lounge or the Yamaha gear tent. If the shade wasn’t enough, I could have swiped on some free Degree antiperspirant, or smoked a pack of free Camels. And if somehow I managed to cut through all the swag and merchandising, somewhere in a small, underattended corner of the field, I could have chatted with someone about the Downtown Women’s Center, a local shelter for homeless women that would receive $1 from every ticket sold in Irvine.
In the midst of the corporate carnival, though, there were female artists singing, in an efficient stage-toggling system that enabled fans to catch every set on the bill simply by walking a few feet across the Verizon Wireless pavilion. Jes Hudak, a cute Katy Perry lookalike at a keyboard, sang sweet, TV ready songs with feel-good lyrics; Susan Justice, a tiny African-American girl strapped into a giant guitar, sang a song titled for “one of my musical heroes, Bob Dylan.” Molly Jenson, a flame-haired acoustic type with a fashionably quirky voice, covered Ryan Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue” and perked up the lazy afternoon with the kind of quick wit you only hone after playing for lots of audiences who couldn’t really care less who you are. In front of her stage, a pair of women danced drunkenly, stealing most of Jenson’s thunder; with a few well-timed barbs, she easily stole it back. The crowd — mostly ladies, with a healthy sampling of husbands and boyfriends, and at least one group of men who said they were there for “the ratio” — sat in the grass. The occasional kid ran by. I wondered why a “celebration of women in music” had no day-care or Kidzapalooza-style option for families. I looked around for pre-teen girls who might grow up to become the next Colbie Caillat, and didn’t see many.
The toggled pace of afternoon Lilith wasn’t always welcome: Adorable husband-and-wife team The Weepies brought their three-year-old son on stage during a too-short set of folk-rock numbers, including new songs like “I Was Made for Sunny Days” that made me long for a college quad to hang out on. But just as the crowd was settling into the Weepies’ good-natured pace, it was time to walk the other direction for Elizaveta, whose Regina Spektor + Tori Amos + Yma Sumac formula equalled a bit of torture to these ears. “This next song is about waiting,” she melodramatically intoned at one point, and I think I sprained my eyes, so hard did they roll. The drunk women were back up and dancing for this set, too; Elizaveta was neither as amused nor as amusing about them as Ms. Jenson. By the time Marina and the Diamonds closed out the small stages with a slightly sluggish, sun-soaked attack of tunes like “Are You Satisfied” and “I Am Not a Robot,” it was high time to enter the amphitheater itself and settle in for the headliners.
This is where Lilith’s attendance woes became most apparent: the 16,000+ capacity venue was about an eighth of the way full when Brandi Carlile, a first-round Lilith attendee who seemed a little in awe of her surroundings, took the stage. “I never used to show up to see the opener until I became one,” she said by way of thanks, then slung her electric guitar over her bare shoulders for songwriter-rock nuggets like “The Story.” She tossed a pick into the front rows with panache; women scrambled for it like it was a bouquet. A cover of “Jackson,” ably handled by her mostly-male band, melded into a powerful take on “Folsom Prison Blues,” complete with the comparatively ladylike addition of a cello solo. Then Carlile closed with “Pride and Joy,” her supremely confident, gimmick-free voice throaty and clear. Again, I wanted more.
Emmylou Harris matched her shoes to her silver hair, and played a somewhat perfunctory set including “Orphan Girl,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” and “Red Dirt Girl.” I love Harris and her quavering voice, but I couldn’t really fault her for seeming disconnected: The crowd seemed not at all interested in the legend singing before them, and I wondered what Harris saw when she looked out from beneath her wise bangs, and how different it looked from those first Fairs. Behind me, a group of very loud women bitched about the ticket prices. “Not to disregard that,” one said, pointing at Emmylou, “but I paid for a show.” These were not the only complainers I encountered over the course of the day. It seemed many in attendance had paid up to $250 for their tickets and were displeased by both the lineup — where was Erykah Badu, they wondered; where was Norah Jones? — and the fact that LiveNation employees were offering $10 “upgrades” to orchestra seats when we walked through the gates. This meant that folks who’d spent, say, $50 for an upper loge seat were now sitting in better locations than the aforementioned $250-spenders. Part of me had no pity for those who’d shelled out big — check the website to see who’s playing in your city, folks! the internet is your friend! — but part of me felt like 1) no concert should be $250, ever, and 2) boy is it a slap in the face to hand out better seats for less money on site. By the time Emmylou and her all-male band wrapped up with gorgeous acapella hymn “Calling My Children Home,” the grumbling of the fans — in seats, in the bathroom line, in the smoking corners — was kind of drowning out the music.
Jenni Rivera was a sight to see, though, and as the first Mexican regional artist to play Lilith Fair, she provided the evening’s biggest (and most thoroughly welcome) dose of “WTF?” Backed by 10 male mariachis in traditional garb, the Long Beach native walked out in a low cut deep purple gown, with long-trained flamenco skirt and exquisite gold brocade. A golden scarf was wrapped across her shoulders and around both wrists. Her hair looked ready for prom. She mixed traditional songs en español like “Cielito Lindo” and “Besame Mucho” with American jukebox standards en ingles like “Angel Baby” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” and those of us in the crowd who weren’t massive Rivera fans — and I’d estimate a good quarter of those present were massive Rivera fans, in bedazzled La Señora ballcaps — could only stare in wonder at her stage presence and showmanship and realize how little we actually know about what people we don’t know listen to in their cars. Rivera was, in a word, refreshing. She also handed out tequila to the front row.
Thus, Miranda Lambert could not have arrived at a better time. With the front row now drunk, and the rest of the crowd — maybe a little over half capacity now — awfully sleepy from the day of slow, sincere songs, the Texas shotgun lover strode on stage with her all-male band and slammed into “Kerosene,” the best song anyone has ever accidentally stolen much of from Steve Earle. She had more people on their feet than I’d seen all afternoon. Lambert used some of her canned banter and worked close to her standard set list — “Only Prettier,” “Heart Like Mine,” “House That Built Me,” the Faces’ “Stay With Me” — but threw in Lilith bonus tracks: “Easy From Now On” went out to Emmylou Harris (who’d recorded it nearly 30 years before Lambert put it on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Miranda brought out new Lilith bestie Brandi Carlile for the best number of the night, a passionate duet on Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Two women singing those lyrics in perfect harmony while grinning into each others’ eyes? A Lilith dream come true on every level.
Note to future headliners: If you need someone to pick up a lazy crowd for ya, might I suggest Lambert? After her awesome punk cover of “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round” and a hardcore two-fer of “White Liar” and “Gunpowder and Lead,” the place was up and at ’em for McLachlan and her mostly-male band. I’m not sure any of us really wanted to sit back down — there had been soooo much sitting. And that’s why we stood through “Angel,” which is not a traditionally peppy song, even if Emmylou Harris takes a verse. We danced like fools to “Building a Mystery” and swayed like dorks to “I Will Remember You.” We accepted odd disco-backbeat versions of “Sweet Surrender” and “Possession” as though they were ABBA songs, and we practically exploded with glee for an encore singalong of “Ice Cream.” We even hung in there for the handful of new tracks McLachlan “indulged” in: “Loving You Is Easy,” “Out of Tune,” “Forgiveness.” None were particularly memorable, but dude! She played “Adia”! Except for the new numbers — and “World On Fire,” which she introduced with the night’s only platitudes about “sisterhood” — I knew every song McLachlan played. I haven’t bought a Sarah McLachlan album since 1998.
The finale was a group-sing of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” featuring most of the acts from the day — sadly minus Rivera and her mariachis, happily plus a vocal line from McLachlan’s super-hot chick bassist, Butterfly Boucher — and I spent it considering what Lilith 2.0 amounted to, when it was all sung and done. Walking out with the half-sized crowd, I realized: It’s a Sarah McLachlan concert. Yes, there are 10 opening acts. Yes, McLachlan only plays for an hour. But she played all her hits, and she played them well, and she got to plug her new album, and we all went home feeling nostalgic and happy in the way the last Bryan Adams/Def Leppard double bill I saw made me feel nostalgic and happy. And on some level, that’s okay. But while on the Lilith grounds, I wouldn’t say I felt like part of a “sisterhood.” I don’t necessarily think I saw the very best “celebration of women in music” available in today’s culture. I would not have paid $250 for a ticket. It was merely a nice day in a friendly setting with some talented ladies and some great songs. The last round of Lilith helped define a generation, but except for that Lambert/Carlile take on “Crazy,” I likely won’t remember this go-round much past next Thursday.
Sigh. I know. Women. Can’t live with ’em, can’t placate ’em with free tampons, right? Anyway. Mixers! Who’s been to Lilith so far this summer? What did you think?