Women's music circus braves cynical Britain

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BRITAIN may trumpet its domination of cutting-edge pop music, but there is one "happening" scene which has, until now, steered away from these shores.

The Lilith Fair, an all-female touring festival of music, is already a cultural phenomenon in the United States, repeatedly drawing sell-out crowds.

This Wednesday the unique show comes to Britain for the first time, in a one-off date at the Royal Albert Hall. Tickets are selling well, but many in the music industry are questioning whether the Fair's positive and politicised feminist formula will work in grumpy old Blighty.

The British singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram has her doubts, for one. "The Lilith Fairs are a cool idea, but we are too cynical here," she said. "I think it would have to travel through the whole of Europe with a big line-up to really work."

The Fairs began about two years ago when the cult Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan decided to celebrate the huge pulling power of women vocalists. Starting small, the event quickly snowballed, rolling through one state after another like a travelling circus. Each time it stopped, it staged a vast open air concert with a varied bill of big-name singers, such as Suzanne Vega, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, the Indigo Girls and Natalie Merchant. At one point it played at 60 arenas in as many days.

The confirmed line-up for Wednesday's show is Sinead O'Connor, Lisa Loeb, Beth Orton, Alison Moyet, N'Dea Davenport and McLachlan herself. There is no sign, however, of Morcheeba or Alisha's Attic - British groups that have taken part in the American concerts. The concert promoters explain the slightly low-voltage bill as the result of having had little time to set up the gig and only the one evening to fill. In the States, a Lilith Fair often went on all day and all night.

Tikaram, whose new album, The Cappuccino Songs, has just been released, suspects that American feminism is much more clearly defined and that gives Lilith Fairs a bigger market. "Women in the States are just better organised and there is no embarrassment about this kind of thing there," she said, referring to the politically correct trappings of the US fairs, where there is strong presence from local rape and incest networks, and the Breast Cancer Society. A dollar from every ticket sold goes to a neighbouring community project.

The festival takes its biblical name from the feisty first wife of Adam, who, according to Hebrew law, was so opinionated that she was effectively evaporated into the ether of Eden. Lilith Fairs, in contrast, look set to dominate the American live music landscape for some time. Last year the tour made more money than its rival, the overtly male, heavy metal Ozzfest.

Britain may have been slow to pick up on the trend, but the record companies are now desperate to capitalise on the vogue for female singers.

"At the moment every A&R in the country is trying to find the new Alanis Morissette, because of the success she has had," said Maddy Clarke, who runs London's Roundhouse recording studio. "When I went to the Brits last year, I couldn't help thinking there was not yet that much competition in the female singers category.

"North America has a long tradition, going back to Carole King and Joni Mitchell, but we have not really had the same thing here."