Rock: Those sisters: still doing it for themselves

Lilith Fair Royal Albert Hall, SW7 Chris Whitley Borderline, W1
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The Independent Culture
As a fan of female vocalists from Edith to Janis and Joni and onwards, I was one of the few men who seemed excited by the sisterhood descending on the Royal Albert Hall for Lilith Fair. Named after Adam's first wife in Eden, etherised for being too lippy, according to Jewish mythology, the all-female fling was seen by almost a million people in the States when it toured coast to coast this summer. Wednesday saw its first foray into Europe; a full tour is expected next year.

Despite my musical preferences, I did rather imagine that the whole idea ("a celebration of women in music") was better as a concept than a concert: I had an image of people like Phoebe from Friends, strumming away in flower- print dresses and wailing about womanhood. Unfair, as it happened: there was a whiff of the campfire about the evening, but even the most cynical phallocrat couldn't fail to relish the music.

Lisa Loeb kicked off the five-hour fest. Famous for "Stay (I Missed You)", as featured in the film Reality Bites, she sounded something like a solo Indigo Girl. Loeb had picked the short straw, starting her set before most people had even left work, but the place was packed by the time N'Dea Davenport took the mike. The former Brand New Heavies frontwoman was hugely energetic and looked like a caped crusader in a long, glittered garment; she clapped and bounced so much to her mix of funk and jazz that she dropped the mike. "Is it illegal to stand in the Royal Albert Hall?" she implored in an American drawl. Suddenly everyone was on their feet, dancing to her cover of Neil Young's "Old Man", which she performed with Sarah McLachlan.

"Go, girl!" greeted Beth Orton when she took the stage for her low- key, folksy set and cheers went up as soon as her better-known singles ("Someone's Daughter" and "Devil's Song") were announced. But with her twinkly twanging and quirky eccentricity, she came dangerously close to the Phoebe pitfall: lines like "can't pin this butterfly down" and so on. It didn't help that she was described in the promotional material as "the clear-eyed oracle of London's breakfast scene". You what?

But the highlight of the evening was Sarah McLachlan herself. One of Bill Clinton's favourite singers - for what it's worth - she's the brains behind the Lilith enterprise. To huge applause, she came on stage and sat at the grand piano, played a few bars, sort of sniggered, and then stopped. "Where the hell am I?" Everyone laughed and clapped - surely the kindest crowd in history - and she started again. With her powerful but mournful voice, her songs were full of grace notes, key changes and melodic inversions. Her mouth hovered over the mike, pulling away for solos, her body bouncing slightly on the piano stool. From a distance, she looked something like a female Elton John. But she sounded much, much better.

She picked up a guitar - and the tempo - before going back to her more usual songs: "slow, a bit sad, even depressing," she joked. "But the writing of them is cathartic." Her gentle duet with Sinead O'Connor made the whole hall stand still in admiration. "That's what makes these things so worthwhile," she said.

Alison Moyet followed, all in black and looking like a Spanish widow, still dancing around to her old songs. Then, Sinead O'Connor deigned, after an inexplicable delay, to come on stage again. Wearing a singlet and suit, O'Connor was the aggressive edge of the evening, electric and attitudinal. There were the usual eclectic sounds, vaguely evoking Ireland: fiddle, pipes (from a keyboard), cello. It's hard to dislike the combination of soaring voice and thumping undertow, but O'Connor still wins the Phoebe fruitcake award: "I would like to dedicate this song," she said, "to all the dead people who may be present here tonight." Right on.

At the opposite end of the musical scale, Chris Whitley was in London this week, doing a single date at the Borderline before embarking on a full-blown tour next spring. Not enough adjectives exist to do justice to Whitley, a man whose music veers from bottleneck blues on his National Steel Dobro to country carolling on banjo. (He first came to fame when a single from his debut album, Kick the Stones, was included in the Thelma and Louise soundtrack.)

Singing solo on stage, with only a foot-stomp for rhythm, Whitley is a frightening sight, looking something like a jailbird in his tight, white vest. He's an unchic example of heroin chic, almost all sinew or vein, eyes staring ahead as his hands race across the fretboard and strings. Unless you see him live, it would be hard to believe he plays all the parts himself as his basslines, chords, melodies and cut-backs all combine. His versatility even led him to do a cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model". He's like a male, Texan PJ Harvey, with added Hendrix. And Whitley is definitely worth seeing when he returns next year.