To hear Sarah McLachlan tell it, coming up with the concept behind the summer's hottest tour was really no big deal. "If I hadn't done it, somebody else would have," she says of Lilith Fair, the roving women's music festival that arrives at the Merriweather Post Pavilion this Tuesday. "I'm just glad I did."
So are the fans. In a season awash in rock and funk festivals -- Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E., Smokin' Grooves, Warped, Ozzfest, the Furthur Fest and Jamizon, to name but a few -- the Lilith Fair is by far the most successful, playing to packed houses while others face empty seats. It's the concept, not the lineup, that sells the show, for even though the bill varies from show to show (McLachlan is the only constant), the sales are consistent across America.
Why is Lilith batting 1.000 when many of her brethren are striking out?
Some of it may have to do with the growing sense of empowerment female pop fans have gained, as stars like Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Erykah Badu, the Spice Girls, Courtney Love, Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt have taken over the boy's club of rock and roll.
Or maybe young women have just gotten tired of summer festivals dominated by bands who appeal mainly to shirtless, sweaty frat boys in the mosh pit.
It's probably a combination of the two. And because McLachlan was the first to act on the need for an affair like Lilith, she's become the most popular woman in rock.
"It's strange, this popularity," says McLachlan, over the phone from her Vancouver, British Columbia, home. "I'm not sure it's anything I ever should get very comfortable with."
But she's certainly enjoying the visibility. "I've actually been laughing a lot about all this amazing press," she says. "People magazine, Us magazine, Time magazine, Entertainment Weekly. It's hilarious. I did this interview [recently], where I said, 'I would never be talking to you if I was just putting out my own record.' "
She laughs, and adds, "By the way, I do have an album coming out " Indeed, her third album, "Surfacing," arrived in stores just 10 days after the tour's July 5 kickoff in Seattle, and sold 161,000 copies in its first week, debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. It's quite a start, considering that McLachlan's wispy, art/folk sound remains as tunefully understated as when she made her considerably less commercial debut with "Solace" five years ago.
Lilith Fair's appeal
But Lilith Fair isn't just a promotional vehicle. It's a cultural hot point, an event so absolutely of the moment that its appeal goes beyond the limitations of music marketing.
Like most touring festivals, the Lilith Fair features a main and secondary stage as well as a "village" of shops and information booths that has its own third stage. Musically, though, it's another breed entirely.
Where other festivals are largely structured on a specific musical style -- alternarock at Lollapalooza, thrash at Warped, jam bands at H.O.R.D.E., etc. -- Lilith is defined entirely by gender. As the tour wends its way across America, its offerings include everything from lounge-style alternarockers the Cardigans to populist folkie Jewel (both of whom are on the bill at Merriweather), from country star Mary Chapin Carpenter to jazz singer Cassandra Wilson.
In fact, the only obvious absence is R&B and rap -- but not intentionally. According to the tour's organizers, a number of such acts were approached for the tour, but declined to participate.
Most artists, though, leapt at the chance to join. "I definitely wanted to be a part of it," says veteran singer/songwriter Jill Sobule, who will be playing the third stage at Merriweather on Tuesday. "Even though I'm on the Borders Bookstore Stage, and I think I'm only playing for 15 minutes. But I don't care. I'm just glad to be there.
"What I think is nice about Lilith is that I've been around for a long time, and know how it was [in the music business] for female artists," Sobule adds, from her home in New York. "When I got dropped from MCA in 1990 and tried to get another deal, record companies would say, 'Oh, we would love to sign you, but we already have a female artist.' You know, like we're all alike."
Sobule, of course, sees female musicians as individuals, every bit as much as male musicians. But at the same time, she admits that the songs she writes tend to take a different focus from male writers' songs.
"I try to write about things that people don't address in songs, and maybe a good deal of the time it's things that women go through," she says. "For instance, I've got a song called 'Barren Egg,' which is kind of the biological clock song. That's not a real 'rock' topic."
Men, she says, stick to typical rock topics to avoid being considered "wimpy" singer/songwriters. "So a lot of alternative male songwriters still deal with this kind of adolescent sex and love thing," says Sobule.