If the early-’90s are represented in musical shorthand by grunge, the late-’90s would be symbolized by an event that began this night in 1997 – the Lilith Fair. The first show of the first of three annual and unusual traveling festivals kicked off at an unusual venue- an ampitheatre called “The Gorge”, in a rocky valley several hours out of Seattle. Over the next couple of months, it would play 33 other shows across most of the major American and Canadian urban centers before wrapping up in Vancouver as the most-successful “festival tour” of the year. (U2 had the overall most profitable concert tour that year.)
Lilith Fair as we recall, was the essentially all-female, multi-artist tour featuring, and started by, Sarah McLachlan. McLachlan was already huge at home in Canada – her last album, Fumbling Towards Ecstacy , was a #1 there – and a growing star in the US, where that same album had topped out at only #50 on the weekly charts but had worked its way into platinum status through her relentless touring. However, she still felt short-changed, thinking radio too reluctant to play female artists and promoters not ready to book many women in to headline shows. She decided to do something about that. “It was a selfish thing,” she said later.”I never got to see the people I love, playing live.” When doing a tour with Paula Cole the previous year, she came up with the idea for the festival, and even the name. She called her hometown, Vancouver, 1996 concert the “Lilith Fair.”
The concept was to have a traveling music festival (with the appropriate associated tents and vendors featuring crafts and various special causes) with all female musicians, save for an occasional male backing musician for a few of them. The tour had three stages, with the third showcasing largely local acts who’d won talent contests in their city, although even that show did have a young and upcoming Dido on it in some places. The second stage had mid-level musical talents like Holly Cole, Juliana Hatfield and ex-Bangle Susanna Hoffs. But the thousands came out in droves to see and hear female stars like Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Sheryl Crow and of course, McLachlan herself. Sarah, whose Surfacing was just on its way to record store shelves (it would go on to be her biggest), finished up the first show with an 11-song set beginning with “Building a Mystery” and topping off with “Possession.”
The New York Times reviewed the tour, calling it an “inevitable” construct of the two dominant musical trends of the ’90s – “Surging commercail fortunes of female songwriters” and “summer package tours.” They did knock it however, suggesting the fans “could be a chapter at the Joni Mitchell fan club,” with the lineup lacking R&B, rap or hard rock acts.
Lilith fair went on to bigger and better in 1998 and ’99 but was discontinued and an attempt to resurrect it in 2010, failed after low ticket sales and a number of stars dropping out.