“This is a very wonderful event to be part of,” purred Natalie Merchant, just before finishing up her Saturday set at the Lilith Fair. “Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
Merchant’s good-natured admonishment was the closest any of the six headlining acts at the Rose Bowl came to addressing the criticisms leveled at this all-female rock festival. In its second year, the brainchild of Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan is featuring a more diverse roster, in an effort to deflect the most pervasive complaint: that all of its artists sound alike. The result on Saturday before a crowd of about 30,000 was a program both less predictable and more homogenous than expected, offering a glimpse at the range of styles purveyed by women pop artists while barely scratching the surface of all there is to hear.
Although the standout sets by Sinead O’Connor and Erykah Badu were also the ones that departed most from the prevailing sensitive folk-rock and soul-pop of McLachlan, Merchant, the Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin, the latter weren’t all that musically monochromatic. Still, the relentlessly dulcet vocals and painfully sincere explorations of heartbreak and loss did start to feel redundant by the time McLachlan closed the eight-hour-plus festival, which also featured lesser-known acts on second and third stages.
This sensation may have been magnified because the highlights came so early. Following a short opening set of plaintive Byrds-like balladry and Sly Stone-styled funk-pop by the very pregnant Colvin, O’Connor defied the blazing sun with 40 minutes of dark, brooding songs drawn largely from her older material. The historically difficult diva sang with a siren’s power and fury, but she was all smiles between such classic numbers as the Prince-penned torch ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U” and the unearthly rocker “Mandinka.”
Alternating between lushly textured full-band performances and subtly nuanced vocalizing that culminated in some heart-stopping seven-part a cappella harmony, O’Connor and her sextet touched on the themes of loss and yearning that recurred throughout the day. But unlike most of the others, the Irish songwriter’s yearnings were driven more by anger and bitterness. Her take on motherhood put forth in “Fire on Babylon,” for example, was an acrimonious indictment, starkly contrasting with the nurturing images celebrated by Badu.
In a white caftan and her signature gravity-defying turban, Badu was a sort of hip-hop priestess, lighting candles and at one point digressing into a music-punctuated astrophysical biology lesson involving the female womb, the Egyptian ankh symbol and the male anatomy.
Badu and her eight-piece band laid down languid, dramatic grooves from her 1997 debut, “Baduizm,” whose questioning lyrics were the day’s most unabashedly spiritual and sociopolitical. Although her spacey one-love rhetoric made her appear to be broadcasting from another planet, Badu proved eminently real, offering very practical advice in “Tyrone,” about a victimized girlfriend who finally kicks out her freeloading bum of a man.
The rest of Lilith offered moments of camaraderie that reinforced McLachlan’s assertion that it is foremost about female artists having fun together. If the men in the bands were relegated to positions traditionally held by female backup singers, the Indigo Girls brought John Popper of Blues Traveler on stage as an equal, as they spun the most feel-good set, packed with uplifting mid-tempo rockers, musical textures and guest appearances by Colvin and McLachlan, as well as actress Ellen DeGeneres. It was almost enough to redeem the rock-fest cliche of their closing mini-jam session on Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World.”
Merchant and her sextet returned the mood to subtle atmospherics with arty numbers from “Ophelia,” her recently released second solo album. But her performance was most enjoyable when she played her earthier R&B-tinged; tunes. Draped in red, she played the mystic to the hilt, twirling and dancing maniacally. She also displayed a veteran’s stamina, joking gamely about her split lip after a fan accidentally nailed her in the mouth with a bouquet of sunflowers.
Although McLachlan was easily the most warmly received, her set was short on emotional power and peaked early with the folky soul ballad “Sweet Surrender.” The generic sentiment of her songs didn’t warrant their often bombastic presentation.
Nevertheless, McLachlan deserves credit for sticking with an idea she knew would work, and has, in spite of the naysayers. Even without the overt political charge that might have made this festival truly revolutionary, there was something vibrant about seeing so many women together on stage for the final encore, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” Perhaps it meant that, at a time when female artists are categorized first by gender, simply gathering these women together is a politically profound act in its own right.