IRVINE — Call off the cops. Yes, by all appearances, the Lilith Fair's policy of open and exclusive gender-bias toward female singer-songwriters was a flagrant violation of Prop. 208. But the test scores are in from Wednesday's sold-out performance at Irvine Meadows, and Lilith earns admission to the roster of touring summer festivals strictly on merit.
It wasn't gender that most distinguished the newfangled Lilith from its more established, male-dominated rivals on the festival circuit--Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. and the nation's annual round of radio-station-sponsored alterna-rock festivals such as the KROQ Weenie Roast. It was consistency of vocal talent. All the main-stage and key secondary stage singers were either strikingly gifted singers (Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Paula Cole, Cassandra Wilson) or accomplished and distinctive stylists capable of bringing to life their often exceptional song craft (Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega).
Other festivals tend to be exhausting; Lilith's emphasis on good singing and songwriting and skilled, tempered playing gave it a welcome sense of proportion, of fullness without surfeit. If anything, the seven-hour affair, played to an overwhelmingly female audience, left one wanting more.
That something more should have been an attempt at collaborative music-making between stars. But, disappointingly, Lilith must have gotten that old solidarity refrain from Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox garbled. At Irvine Meadows, it came out "sisters are doin' it by themselves."
McLachlan's stunning performance as headliner was an act of grace under pressure. Not only was she taking the anchor lap of the long day's race, but also she isn't as big a commercial force as Chapman or Jewel, the two multiple-platinum chart successes on the bill. But her set was like a primer in the classic verities of pop singing: poise, control, clarity, rich emotionalism and vocal sallies that were adventurous but never contrived merely for show.
She even looked classical in a simple black satin gown. But McLachlan was no statue, either in her friendly, relaxed, between-songs patter or in her dynamic bearing while singing.
Lilith Fair lacked a video screen, and most of the house missed something valuable by not being able to see the play of feelings on McLachlan's face. Songs from her imminent new release, "Surfacing," went for the big gesture and the big emotional moment at every turn, and she and her sharp band carried it off with power and elegance. Lilith's 35-city tour (Irvine was the fourth date) could well turn into McLachlan's coronation procession.
Jewel and Cole were the young contenders, although with a quintuple-platinum debut album, it's hard to think of Jewel as a contender. Her drastically uneven, consistently derivative set suggested that, artistically, she is still more about potential than achievement. But that is no knock on someone who is all of 23. At that age, Jewel is supposed to do things like essay Patti Smith's monumental, mystical "Dancing Barefoot" and come up flat, or parade material that comes off as half-baked Dylanism (one new song was virtually a knockoff of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues").
Soon to be off on a shed tour of her own, Jewel has good influences, loads of confidence and gumption, a very sexy look (she strutted on in a pinstriped mini-mini outfit that made her seem an apparition from a ZZ Top hot-rod video), a fresh, endearing personality and a rich, versatile voice (best showcased on the lovely ballad "Angel Standing By").
Still, she hasn't proved that she can put it all together in a mature, individualistic way. She might emerge as her own woman, or she might wind up a crafty, very popular but artistically insubstantial chameleon, like Billy Joel.
Cole has undisguised diva ambitions and is apparently willing to do almost anything to achieve them, including, on this day, turn up in a purplish belly dancer's costume. She pushed her powerful voice beyond its limits and into a painful, shrilling zone; she essayed some flights and flutters that veered off course. She bunny-hopped barefoot and posed shamelessly. But she also showed a real spark of intelligence, such as in the puppetlike dancing that underscored the sardonic current in her enigmatic hit about female subservience, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" And her overarching theme, a worthy one, was the climb from subservience to independent self-hood.
Cole tried nakedly (well, seminakedly) to impress; some of her lyrics were heavy-handed, and she gave a presentation that wasn't classic at all, but totally over the top. The thing is, for all her mistakes, she was never dull. Someday she'll tone it down a bit, but for now there's a special pleasure in watching a young, developing talent grab for the brass ring with unabashed, if sometimes awkward, intensity.