Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company  
The New York Times

August 9, 1999, Monday, Late Edition - Final

SECTION: Section E; Page 1; Column 1; The Arts/Cultural Desk 

LENGTH: 1148 words

Girl Power Takes On Rock's Challenges


   Sarah McLachlan made sure that the Jones Beach stop of the Lilith Fair was touched by an angel: herself. Aside from starring on Friday night, Ms. McLachlan, the singer-songwriter who originated the gynocentric festival in 1997, briefly appeared with all the main-stage performers, as well as the second-stage headliner, Aimee Mann. Ms. McLachlan's husband and drummer, Ashwin Sood, popped up even more frequently than she did.

These visitations by Lilith's reigning couple made it more than just another summer concert. It became a family event, with Ms. McLachlan as the ultimate older sister; a show of strength, with her as the commander; a cast party, with her as the leading lady, and a historic moment, with her as the heroine. Ms. McLachlan can be forgiven for wanting to milk the 1999 Lilith for all of its emotional power. After this year she plans to retire the festival. Her graciously underplayed cameos brought the ovations she has earned for all three tours.

Perhaps the modesty that Ms. McLachlan displayed also indicated her awareness that the spirit of this year's Lilith Fair belongs as much to Sheryl Crow and Chrissie Hynde, whose performances made Ms. McLachlan's fine closing set feel like an elegant coda.

Under the power of Ms. Crow, leading her band, and Ms. Hynde, heading the Pretenders, the Lilith Fair rocked. From the moment Ms. Hynde emerged in a gold jacket and black tutu over slim jeans, to the last chords of Ms. Crow's "There Goes the Neighborhood," built around the spine-melting bass playing of Me'Shell Ndegeocello, the show caught fire. The very existence of this festival has posed a challenge to the entertainment industry, but on an artistic level Lilith has sometimes felt safe. These women took Lilith's dare and made it into music.

That challenge is to express women's experience powerfully while moving beyond gender stereotypes. The driving beat, the chance to yell and the down-and-dirty mood that rock cultivates offered Ms. Crow and Ms. Hynde access to emotions, like anger and sexual excitement, that more genteel songwriters cannot so easily grasp, and their talent for ballads let them show softness, too.

Ms. Crow's set was a surprise; she can be unfocused live. Perhaps surviving the hostile environment of Woodstock '99, where she also performed, pushed her limits. She credited Ms. Hynde for giving her a "deserved kick," introducing her as "the greatest female rocker on the planet" when they joined for a ragged but energized duet on "If It Makes You Happy." Whatever the source of her inspiration, Ms. Crow fed hungrily upon it, playing bass and belting out her songs (and her gauntlet-throwing take on "Sweet Child o' Mine" by Guns 'n' Roses) with a toughness that emphasized their core restlessness instead of their cleverly pretty surfaces.

Ms. Hynde has been rock's tough queen throughout her long career with the Pretenders, demanding the right to act like one of the boys while offering up intensely female songs on subjects ranging from hard-core sex to marriage and motherhood. She made fun of Lilith's feminine veneer with that tutu, and teasingly called it "the girl tour." But as the Pretenders stormed through new songs and old favorites, Ms. Hynde was clearly willing to take the festival's helm.

Her engagement with the crowd raised its energy as fans threw flowers at her feet. The presence of this veteran, still in top form, also gave the Lilith Fair a sense of continuity it has sometimes lacked.

One form of outreach Lilith has always needed to work on is racial; its focus on singer-songwriters has not only led it away from rock, but toward mostly white artists. Its organizers have conscientiously tried to remedy this relative homogeneity, this year inviting Ms. Ndegeocello and Mya to perform. These two artists opened the main stage, but unfortunately many concertgoers still browsing the booths outside the amphitheater missed their sets.

This was particularly sad in the case of Ms. Ndegeocello, who generates one of the funkiest live grooves in circulation. Faced with the glare of daylight and so many empty seats, Ms. Ndegeocello, a bassist and singer, attained the elusive grace known as "flow" but remained introverted. She focused on her excellent band and avoided between-song patter. One hopes anyone whose interest she captured will track her down in a small club, where she really shines.

The youthful Mya, who shot to fame after appearing on the Pras single "Ghetto Supastar," charmed the crowd as it filed into the amphitheater. Her voice is girlish, almost impish, as is she, and at times her large band overwhelmed her. But her relentless show-biz energy belied this musical problem as she charmed her way through her set. She even demonstrated her old-fashioned tap-dancing skills.

The funky, rocking main stage, which also featured Sandra Bernhard delivering wild and cutting comedy routines, did not completely commandeer the Lilith Fair from the sweet-voiced singer-songwriters who define its image. Ms. Mann attracted much excitement during her second-stage set and not only because of cameos from Ms. Crow and Ms. McLachlan. Ms. Mann is shaping up to be the Dorothy Parker of adult pop, although her jiltings have come from the music industry, not callous lovers. Her fans appreciate her all the more for her struggles with adversity, as they demonstrated loudly on Friday.

Performers on the second and third stages did their best with the drifting crowds shopping at the booths, which included a decent feminist bookstore and information from activist groups alongside merchandising by Tommy Hilfiger and General Motors. The ska band Dance Hall Crashers got some fans dancing with perky, girl-friendly songs like "Catfight." (The band is against them.) Bertine, a trip-hop artist from Norway, wove a delicate spell, while the rocker Kendall Payne displayed a hopeful energy akin to Alanis Morissette's. Nina Gordon, formerly of the rock band Veruca Salt, played Jewel-like ballads that spoke of horses and romantic agony.

And, of course, there was Ms. McLachlan, gathering in the day's spirit at its end. Her set was quite similar to last year's, featuring audience favorites like "Ice Cream" and "Possession." Its familiarity was soothing and, as always, Ms. McLachlan's singing was gorgeous. At times she pushed herself, perhaps in honor of those testy women who preceded her.

Ms. Hynde and Ms. Crow emerged, along with everyone else who had performed, for the Lilith Fair's customary final bonding moment. Ms. Hynde took another vocal turn on "I Shall Be Released," as did Joan Osborne, a surprise guest, whose rich singing overtook the crowd like a rejuvenating current. At the song's end, Ms. McLachlan turned to hug Ms. Osborne, and the audience departed, reassured that sisterhood remains powerful. Especially when some sisters take a risk.

GRAPHIC: Photo: Chrissie Hynde, left, and Sandra Bernhard at a Lilith Fair performance at Jones Beach. (Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times)