Soaking It Up

A woman's place is in the middle of the music as the Lilith Fair storms into Columbia for a spirited stop on a final, victory tour

July 29, 1999

Whether it was the glories of womanhood or the furies of a summer thunderstorm, there was joy in the mudville of Lilith Fair last night.

"Just so you know, tonight's show is brought to you by the letter `S' and the number `4,' " said rock superstar Sheryl Crow from the stage as she sported a white T-shirt decorated by those fluorescent pink symbols. The letter "S" made sense, at least, as it stood not only for Sheryl but also for festival founder Sarah McLachlan, who was due to follow Crow in the concert finale.

The national tour of mostly female pop musical acts came to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia on a steamy, 90-plus-degree day. First came the heat, then came the moisture as the crowd, more than 17,000-strong, greeted the first clap of thunder with a roar and rose to its feet to embrace the fierce downpour.

The enthusiasm was typical of the good spirits of Lilith Fair, with its diverse music and accompanying "village" rich in booths devoted to social causes (and merchandising). And though women dominated the crowd, the large numbers of men, and of fans young and old, bore out the performers' feeling that this concert isn't about women's music. It's about music.

"Everyone's here because we're great musicians and great songwriters -- blah, blah, blah!" Crow said in a news conference before the show, dismissing the idea that Lilith is only about female music.

Still, the "summer camp" atmosphere, as founder McLachlan described it, doesn't disguise the fact that the tour has done a great deal for women in music. The Lilith Fair exposes fans to women who perform everything from rock to blues to country to hip-hop to medieval tunes, and the fans like it.

"The most powerful promotional tool for what we do is ourselves," Crow said.

McLachlan, who has announced that this is the Fair's third and final year, may have benefited the most from Lilith. Since 1997, Lilith's first year, she's had a number of hits from the album "Surfacing," including "Building a Mystery," "Sweet Surrender," "Angel" and "Adia." Her live album "Mirrorball," including the stage version of "I Will Remember You," is at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 this week.

But her success is not unique; tour headliners who were at Merriweather yesterday include Crow, the Dixie Chicks, the Pretenders and Me'shell NdegeOcello. The lineup was pure ear candy. And the talents of these and other women have been recognized throughout the pop world.

"It's been a real loud wakeup call to the music industry on the significant force commercially women are," said Holly George-Warren, editor of Rolling Stone Press, the book imprint of the magazine, which published "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock" in 1997.

"I think women's success on the charts could have occurred a long time ago if they'd gotten the opportunities they're finally getting. ... I think women all along have been making great music," said George-Warren yesterday from her New York office, "but it's been a lot harder for them to get that music out there for people to hear.

"Now they've got a support system like Lilith; they've got all these labels salivating to sign," she said.

And the interest has been evident from TV -- VH1 has celebrated the top 100 women of rock and roll -- to record labels -- Rhino is releasing a century's worth of recordings by women in a five-CD boxed set called "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," which George-Warren produced.

But the greater impact on women's music didn't matter yesterday as much as the music itself and having a good time. Fans filled the pavilion and every inch of lawn to hear 11 acts on three stages.

As the festival began, Toni Blackman crooned from the Village Stage, "I hate Valentine's Day!" Her reasons seemed good, and the groove was convincing. A young woman walked away singing the refrain. But Blackman's cry against commercialism seemed a bit lost in the Village. Though social causes were represented -- there were booths devoted to abortion rights, animal rights, breast cancer research and women's literature -- there were also typical festival vendors hawking earthy dresses, beady jewelry, art, CDs, hats, sunglasses, Tommy Hilfiger perfume and, throughout the grounds, $3 bottles of water.

As early as 4 p.m., the lawn at the outdoor venue was filled with blankets. Mary Burek, 35, of Rockville and husband Michael, 40, ended up in the very back row. Visibility was lousy, but the speakers were deafening enough. "We really came to listen," Michael said. "Plus, they wouldn't let us bring in lawn chairs," he added, so he decided to make use of the fence as a backrest.

Nearby, sisters Cindy, 14, and Eleanor Keyser, 18, were prepared for heat with a misting fan and extra batteries, not to mention Gatorade ("for the electrolytes," Eleanor said), frozen water, potato salad, cookies, cheese spread, crackers and Starbucks Frappuccino.

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