In these last few years marked by economic downturn and technological advances and encroachments, one thing has been the financial saving grace of musicians large and small: concerts. Shrinking profits may be killing records, record labels, and the record industry as we once knew it, but touring—with its merchandise offerings and its potential for fans to witness unique output at every venue—has long been considered an ironclad moneymaker. Then sweet and sultry songstress Sarah McLachlan goes and resurrects Lilith Fair, the female-focused traveling festival she spearheaded in the late 1990s, and all manner of alarms go off.
The 2010 lineups seem smaller and weaker, and seem to change more frequently than those from Lilith’s prior incarnation; soft ticket sales force the cancellation of dates in 10 cities. The last time we saw concert contraction of this magnitude was in 2004, as interest in Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza expansion crumbled before we even knew we were in a recession.
What can be made of Lilith’s struggles, and can they be extrapolated to music at-large? Are tour and festival tickets finally reaching luxury-item or “want” status that simply can’t be afforded by music fans as often as before? Is McLachlan’s particular goal of promoting quality female musicians and their viewpoints, or the lineups she assembled for the purpose, a little shop-worn?
If we look at the Lilith date at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., a short drive south of New York City, we might find both of these issues in play. One of a series of East Coast dates near the end of the tour that was to feature some of Lilith’s biggest names, the drawing power was marred primarily by health issues. Disney Channel upstart Selena Gomez canceled three days beforehand due to vocal cord problems, but earlier and more significantly, songwriting legend Carly Simon pulled out with a broken foot.
It’s unclear if Simon’s absence increased ticket refunds, reselling, and no-shows, or made more difficult the prospect of selling out an amphitheater where hundreds of orchestra seats were VIP-packaged, but for a venue with a crowded vendor/sponsor “village” area and a packed lawn, the covered seating was maybe three-quarters full. Credit is due to Lilith’s organizers and McLachlan’s friends, however, for filling in the gaps so quickly and attractively. Simon, Gomez, and indie beatmakers Chairlift were replaced on this final day in July by rising Canadian artist Serena Ryder, English ‘tronica chanteuse Beth Orton, and longtime alt-folkie Suzanne Vega. While none of these artists really match Simon’s star power, Orton and Vega at least could be considered big upgrades over the other absentees.
Jill Hennessy may have been the most curious draw of Lilith’s six side-stage performers—carving out a new musical career for herself after an acting turn famously highlighted by Law & Order and Crossing Jordan—but Orton was arguably the biggest. Her solo acoustic half-hour belied the fact that she’s held down headlining gigs on her own (as well as diva duty on songs by the likes of The Chemical Brothers). Lilith’s short sets and tight schedule meant artists focused on either their newest album or greatest hits; the affable Orton therefore powered through work like “Stolen Car,” “Central Reservation,” and “She Cries Your Name,” as well as an intriguing cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child.”
Meanwhile, on the main stage, Vega justified her last-minute add by reminding attendees that she’s been at this thing for only about, oh, 25 years. Backed by just a John Lydon-looking guitarist and a rather phenomenal bass player, Vega’s set ranged all the way from her Pretty in Pink contribution “Left of Center,” through 1990s electronic dalliances like “Tom’s Diner” and “Blood Makes Noise,” up to “The Man Who Played God,” her recent collaboration with Danger Mouse and the late Mark Linkous on Dark Night of the Soul. She may not have the best stage presence, but she’s pretty strong where it counts: her varied themes and stories, and her performance skill.
At festivals, you hope that if you run into an artist with less of a pedigree than, say, Suzanne Vega, or if you know an artist but don’t know their catalog, that something is going to help them latch onto your heart and ears. For a side-stage nobody like Priscilla Renea, it’s the day’s only honest foray into upbeat urban music. For an up-and-comer like Sara Bareilles, it’s unabashed pop confidence backed up by the success of songs like “Love Song.” For someone like Chan Marshall, though, fronting her outfit Cat Power? Despite a long run in indie circles, she stands to learn a lot from these other ladies after a shameful performance unchanging in somber tone, from muttered conversational singing to even dour blue lighting. Your author has friends who swear by Cat Power, and say they can do no wrong; no doubt that by the end of their set, some concertgoers were swearing at them.
In stark relief against Cat Power stood Indigo Girls, the out-and-proud Lilith veterans following them on the main stage. Typecast over time as pure folk singers and two of the few lesbian faces of pop music (pigeonholes they have grown to embrace, sometimes even with tongue in cheek), nobody wants to admit that some of Emily Sailers and Amy Ray’s earliest works are college-rock jangle-pop classics. From points like “Kid Fears,” “Closer to Fine,” and “Galileo,” they have learned to sing the hell out of albums and concerts. Fueled by emotional and intellectual range, collaboration among onstage guests and the audience, here was the first and best example of Lilith’s music and message in microcosm—actual girl power.
Sarah McLachlan reprised her customary role of closing things out as the headliner. She smartly moved the 800-pound gorilla out of the room quickly, opening with a harmonized and organ-backed arrangement of “Angel” that converted it from ASPCA commercial tearjerker to a more soulful pseudo-gospel. From there, she played the role of hip and occasionally hot mama, flirting with her guitarists amid otherwise classy readings of three tracks from new album Laws of Illusion and a host of standard fan favorites: “Sweet Surrender,” “Building a Mystery,” “I Will Remember You,” an “Ice Cream” encore. It was nothing mind-blowing, to be sure, but as a performer and Lilith’s ringleader, McLachlan stands solid and firmly in control.
Yet in the face of sluggish ticket sales, one wonders what standing in the way of control would do for Lilith’s relevance to audiences in the 2010s. There’s no denying that economic factors might have priced some people out of coming to this, and the absence of an intriguing draw like Carly Simon might have made others reconsider a purchase. But for all of the quality at the Holmdel/NYC show and throughout the roster of artists initially and subsequently confirmed for the whole tour, there seems to be a definite lack of anger, rebellion, even any consistent baring of teeth.
Of the seven full sets we watched at PNC Bank Arts Center, only three stepped away from the singer-songwriter/folk construct to employ the power of drums (two, if you discount Cat Power’s emasculated brushing and tapping). The majority of backup players through the day were male, and while that might just be percentages and odds working in their favor you wonder just what kind of contrast in dynamics would be presented by multiple or all women in a band (again we reference Cat Power, leading into Indigo Girls). And frankly, Lilith’s cast of characters this summer skewed heavily towards your AAA radio favorites, your neo-soul sisters, your country, your classic rock, your Top 40.
Would Lilith again approach The Gossip and Tegan & Sara, two of the harder-rocking acts on this year’s roster, who ended up playing no dates and one date respectively? Is there room for electronics that beep a little louder in the form of Ladytron, Peaches, or The Knife? Does the provocative hip-hop of Amanda Blank, M.I.A., or Nicki Minaj have a place at the table? What about punk voices like The Slits or Hole? Artistes like Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson? Would McLachlan relinquish the spotlight to other bona fide headliners with hot streaks or longer careers—Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Rihanna, Sonic Youth?
Will or can Lilith really take into account the full spectrum of female musical performance, and therefore of audience interest? Sure, there’s no guarantee that more diverse artists guarantee a larger, more diverse audience at these Lilith dates, especially with money currently looming as a dark cloud over many entertainment purchase decisions. Yet continuing to play it sonically safe and soft might not get listeners to take the chance in the first place; that’s a strategy McLachlan and Lilith undertake at their peril.