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COVER STORY

They Said She Couldn't Do It

But Sarah McLachlan's brainchild, Lilith Fair, is back this year with more artists and dates than last summer's hottest festival tour.

June 21, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Yes, Sarah McLachlan has heard most of the condescending names that male music biz insiders coined after she announced last summer's all-female Lilith Fair festival tour.

The 30-year-old singer-songwriter even smiles now at the mention of them: "Girlapalooza" . . . "Lesbopalooza" . . . and the rest.

When it gets to one she hasn't heard, she breaks into a flat-out laugh: "Breast-fest."

"Oh, my God," she says, cackling during an interview here. "Really. Well, there you go."

Then again, it's easy for McLachlan to laugh these days.

Despite industry warnings that an all-female roster wouldn't be viable, the Lilith tour grossed more than $16 million in 38 shows. That's nearly $500,000 a stop--easily outstripping the $294,000 average last year of Lollapalooza, the summer's high-testosterone, alt-rock affair, according to trade publication Pollstar.

Based on that success, Lilith is expanding to 57 U.S. shows this summer, including stops Friday at the Del Mar Fair Grandstand and Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (with a scaled-down seating plan). After the U.S. dates, Lilith plans to test the market in Europe, Australia and Japan. Potential gross on the U.S. dates alone this time around: more than $25 million.

A two-disc Lilith album, featuring live performances from such 1997 tour participants as McLachlan, Paula Cole and Jewel--has grossed another $4 million since its release April 28.

This all adds up to a major break-through for female artists, who for decades have been viewed as secondary players in the male-dominated pop world. For years, radio and record executives believed there was such limited demand for female artists that companies had informal quotas. Where labels would typically sign dozens of male rock bands, they might sign just one female rock band each. Radio stations also generally limited the number of female artists on their playlists--and almost never programmed two records by women back to back.

Women, however, have become an increasingly powerful part of the record market over the last decade, as demonstrated by such mainstream artists such as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion as well as more cutting-edge ones, including rock's Alanis Morissette and hip-hop's Erykah Badu. Radio airplay has reflected this.

One reason for this commercial clout is that women over the last decade have become the biggest purchasers of music--up from 43% in 1988 to 51.4% last year, reports the Recording Industry Assn. of America. At the same time, female artists arguably have made the freshest music in the '90s.

Lilith--which drew 70% women, mostly ages 18 to 35--finally brought the concert business to the celebration.

"We always knew that it wasn't true . . . that it was just sexist to think you couldn't have women on the same bill," says three-time Grammy winner Shawn Colvin in a separate interview. "It was just a matter of time before it would be proven false, and I'm only glad I was around when it happened. It's like an albatross being taken off your neck."

McLachlan, who won a best female pop vocal Grammy this year for her recording of "Building a Mystery," agrees.

"Sure, I was pissed at one point over all the [names for Lilith], but then I realized that it's all just silly," she says.

"When we first started doing this, they said it wouldn't work because women don't buy tickets and don't buy T-shirts and on and on. And there was all this talk about what a risk we were taking. Well, I guess I am just naive because I didn't see it as that. I knew women liked music . . . and guess what? I was right."

The Garden is a cavernous arena that once hosted all sorts of musical and sporting events, but the action has long since moved to newer facilities around Vancouver. So the worn, old building now sits empty most of the year.

Not tonight however. The Lilith staff is using the building as a staging ground for the tour. In less than a week, a convoy of trucks will drive all the equipment--including rigging for three stages and dozens of vendor tents--to Portland for the tour's opening date.

In the midst of all this activity, McLachlan is on a stage that has been set up in one end of the building. She's singing "Adia," the tale of romantic struggle that is her first U.S. Top 10 single. Her six-piece band, which includes her husband, drummer Ash Rood, is accompanying her. Her female black Labrador, Rex, is curled nearby.

McLachlan's music lacks the soul-searching individuality of the '90s' most acclaimed female artists, including England's P.J. Harvey and Ireland's Sinead O'Connor. Yet the best of her expressions of search and desire have the intimacy and grace associated with some of her own personal favorites, including Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush.

McLachlan tends to downplay her importance in the Lilith story, but she is the guiding spirit behind the affair, everyone involved acknowledges. She either came up with or signed off on all the key decisions, from the women-only nature of the show to the sizable charity component.

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