Ironically, the Lilith Fair has become something of a whipping boy for this summer’s slew of concert-industry woes. After all, it’s a big-name package tour from the late-’90s glory days that revived itself this year, only to deal with 10 cancellations out of 36 dates, fire sales on tickets, and acts dropping out left and right. Though far from a disaster, it nonetheless made an easier target than, say, the completely canceled Limp Bizkit reunion tour for two reasons: First, its “celebration of women in music” intent draws sneers from both the still-male-dominated rock cognoscenti and those women who feel uncomfortable with the “women in rock” stigma; second, it soldiered on in the face of those problems instead of giving up entirely and whimpering to a close.
Not to say the tour didn’t have glaring problems. The ticket prices, which topped out at $133.25 before surcharges and Live Nation add-ons, were way too high for this economic moment, never mind for a show in which the headliner, co-organizer Sarah McLachlan, played for under an hour. Consider also the tour’s ever-rotating lineups, which—thanks to some bizarre routing decisions rooted in a too optimistic view of social media getting the word out about who exactly was playing where—veered between “haphazard” and “frustrating.” The initial announcement promised a genre-spanning show headlined by, say, McLachlan, Erykah Badu, Kelly Clarkson, and Miranda Lambert, but that proved to be unattainable: The last three were never scheduled to have a show together. (Clarkson dropped out of the tour shortly after the cancellations were announced in early July.)
Various roadblocks, including a freak throat ailment that struck down the Disney-bred pop star Selena Gomez at the last minute, resulted in Saturday’s stop at the PNC Bank Arts Center being headlined instead by artists who have in the past been derisively referred to as “tampon rock.” (A slur, it should be noted, sorta underscored by the Lilipad, a sponsored, on-site feminine-hygiene-products dispensary. Not that it wasn’t quite nice for the biological realities of women to be acknowledged in a live-music setting; in fact, they should expand the Pad’s scope to tours that aren’t squarely targeted at the XX set, because freeing women of all musical affinities from the tyranny of grossly understocked lavatories would engender a ton of goodwill.) But wouldn’t some diversity among the day’s 11 acts have been nice? Actually, in the eyes of Lilith’s actual paying customers, maybe not: The bulk of the audience, which filled out the lawn and grew healthier in the theater’s lower reaches as the day went on, was there for McLachlan (the fest’s only consistent headliner) and the Indigo Girls (there just for the last three dates—the tour finishes this week in Washington, D.C.)
Saturday’s avid response suggests the Indigos should’ve co-headlined the whole tour; earlier performers inspired less enthusiasm. Priscilla Renea, playing the tent-laden Lilith Village, tried to win over the sponsor-distracted crowd with her Rihanna-like voice and stridently energetic pop. Sara Bareilles took a risk by opening with her hit—the peppy-to-the-point-of-obnoxious “Love Song”—but kept the crowd on its toes, raising eyebrows with a bouncy cover of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Suzanne Vega’s wonderful set, with a stripped-down take on “Blood Makes Noise” somehow as chaotically compelling as its 18-year-old recorded version, stirred up semi-excitement at best; Cat Power’s pain-drenched blues followed, swallowed up by the venue’s largeness and the crowd’s indifference, though Chan Marshall’s hoarse yowl sounded lovely. But energy levels spiked as soon as the ebullient, grateful Indigo Girls took the stage, and McLachlan sustained it, sprinkling tracks from her new album with the revelation that divorcing her husband had made her OK with releasing a song that sounded “country,” though her version of “country” sounded a lot like Tori Amos’s “Crucify.” The night closed with most of the night’s frontwomen returning to the stage and tearing through Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” which seemed to be chosen for its college-demonstration-recalling declaration that “the night belongs to us.” (Marshall was notably absent.)
The tour’s ticketing woes have dominated the headlines, but digging a little deeper into the business aspects of Saturday’s show revealed one notable fact: Four of the five headliners (McLachlan, Cat Power, the Indigos, and Vega) are currently on independent labels, with the latter two running their own shows. Vega, in fact, is in the process of re-recording and reissuing her entire back catalog to net more royalties, a move also employed by Britpop mainstays Squeeze and many a catalog-wringing hard-rock act. So could Lilith’s vaguely separatist attitude actually double as step one in reclaiming the means of musical production for women? Certainly it’s impressive that independently aligned headliners are (sort of) holding their own in this awful live-music climate. Perhaps transforming the fest into a handful of three-day-weekend destinations with sets by all the acts initially promised—and still more from the worlds of classical, jazz, and beyond—might bring Lollapalooza-style success. (McLachlan announced during a short press session that she planned to bring Lilith back in 2011 and 2012.)
But there are still aspects that frustrate the tour’s vaguely feminist intents. After all, the only requirement for being a Lilith act is having a female up front—yes, most were instrumentalists as well, but the bulk of the non-singers onstage were dudes. (Hello, male gaze!) Hearing about the business ventures of the Indigo Girls and Vega does make one wonder if establishing something like Lilith is merely step one toward eradicating the noxious “women in rock” cliché, and moving toward a time when the fleet-fingered Marnie Stern can simply be referred to as an incredible guitarist, and not simply a female one.
One thing’s for sure: Free tampons aside, the “one size fits all women” marketing that accompanied the music often left a bitter aftertaste. Chevrolet’s “What would Lilith drive?” billboard was simply stupid, but ABC’s decision to test-screen the forthcoming sitcom Better With You during the moments preceding and following the Indigo Girls’ set was downright offensive. Forcing an audience to sit through 23 minutes of hoary jokes about how an unmarried heterosexual couple was “less worthy” in the eyes of society as we anticipated and basked in the afterglow of a set by two of this country’s most prominent gay musicians? Marketing missteps like this would seem to indicate that Lilith has a long way to go as far as both making all sorts of women feel welcome and bringing in enough sponsorship dollars to be sustainable. Then again, the same could probably be said for any female-forward undertaking in this oddly conservative moment.