With an emphasis on entertainment over ideology, and transforming the cavernous Royal Albert Hall into a kind of Greenham Common fun park, tonight's conservative bill - Lisa Loeb, N'dea Davenport, Beth Orton, Alison Moyet, Sarah McLachlan and Sinead O'Connor respectively - deliver a marathon six hours of folk-rock, soul and pop by way of showcasing the acclaimed American touring package.
Lilith Fair was founded in 1996 by McLachlan, a 30-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter, as a riposte to the testosterone-fuelled, peripatetic thrashfest that is Lollapalooza. In a musical climate where many American radio stations refuse to play women back-to-back, Lilith Fair and its alternating line-up has gone on to become the world's most financially lucrative roaming festival. It's also turned the business savvy McLachlan into a multi-million selling artist, raised money for women-centred charities, and become THE gig for grown-up Riot Grrrls.
The question is, of course, does Lilith Fair work in the UK? McLachlan, the only artist to have performed on all 170 coast-to-coast dates, is a huge drawcard back home; here she is largely unknown. (A fact, presumably, tonight's organisers have sought to remedy by placing flyers for her fourth album, Surfacing, on every seat.) All involved did, however, throw themselves into proceedings with appropriate joie de vivre.
"It's just so special to play alongside people you're inspired by, and to audiences that come to listen," gushed Lisa Loeb who, backed by two violins and a cello, sang brightly of black holes and Sigmund Freud from behind her trademark Nana Mouskouri specs. "We're here to party," shrieked N'dea Davenport, late of the Brand New Heavies, before launching into a series of blues funk numbers. Beth Orton brought her male guitarist onstage for some rhythm-infused folk; the rich vocals of ex-Yazoo Alison Moyet (a "living legend", we're told) were highlighted by the Albert Hall's acoustics; a newly shorn Sinead O'Connor sang "Nothing Compares 2 U" with a mixture of strength and vulnerability - the essence, indeed, of Lilith Fair itself.
The phenomenal success of Lilith Fair has generated inevitable criticisms, largely that the line up isn't as diverse as it could be. And with Stateside tours including heavyweights such as Joni Mitchell, Jewel and Missy Elliott, tonight's bunch seem positively tame by comparison. Where, for example, was Chrissie Hynde? Polly Harvey? Carleen Anderson?
Regardless, this evening belonged to Sarah McLachlan, who popped up for the odd duet (including, with Davenport, a storming rendition of Neil Young's "Old Man") and was name-checked, praised and hugged throughout. The big love-in finale hadn't taken place at the time of going to press, but it's a sure-fire bet that she got the biggest cheer of all.
Eschewing the "F"-word (i.e. feminism) while espousing its principles (i.e. that women matter as much as men), McLachlan et al stick two manicured fingers up to the laddish music industry and turn out some memorable performances while they're at it. Lilith Fair will be back, with all three stages, for a full European tour in 1999; whether they'll be able to pull that one off is another matter entirely.
A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper
Jane CornwellReuse content