It’s been 11 years since Sarah McLachlan last convened Lilith Fair, in that time it has lost both a good portion of its audience and half its name: The tour is being marketed simply as “Lilith: The Celebration of Women in Music.” With a dozen shows canceled and many of the best-known acts dropping out, Saturday’s edition of Lilith at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in Irvine appeared to be typical — a mixed bag of performers playing to a less than two-thirds filled house.
While some of Lilith’s problems can be blamed on the continuing recession, with some of the wounds self-inflicted — a $258 top ticket for a line-up noticeably short on star-power would be a tough sell in any economy — but this year’s lackluster performance can also be seen as proof of Lilith’s success.
The landscape for female performers has improved since 1999, when Lilith last toured. Acts that are in Lilith’s wheelhouse, such as Kelly Clarkson and Norah Jones (who were scheduled to play certain dates but dropped out) no longer need the tour’s support, while younger stars who might have expanded Lilith’s appeal — M.I.A. or Taylor Swift, for example — are able to fill amphitheaters on their own.
This leaves a tour that has lost some commercial power but — based on the often fervent reactions from the aud — retains its emotional appeal. Which leads to performers, especially in the early going, who lean more on their identity than their music. “I know exactly who I want and what I want to be,” Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds declaims over a tinkly cabaret trio; Brandi Carlile started the proceedings on the main stage by declaring “I came into myself.”
She was able to back up that statement with a set of loose, urgent folk-rock showcasing her limber, grainy vocals. She’s a strong enough singer that she easily takes on Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The stridency that was often in evidence in the early going was placed in high relief by Emmylou Harris’ beautifully calm set. Instead of demands for recognition, Harris, a ghostly and elegant beauty, takes the stage and simply declares, “Here I am.” Her shimmering set included a heartfelt cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” and dedications that spanned three generations, sending “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” to her infant granddaughter and the slow, mournful “Bang the Drum Slowly” (written with Guy Clark) to her father.
She was followed by Jenni Rivera, who created a completely different mood. The Mexican-American performer, a controversial star in Mexico, was preceded on stage by a costumed 10-piece mariachi band. Easily the most bodacious performer of the evening (and a performer who knows the value of a good entrance), she swanned onto the stage in a body-hugging lavender dress with a low neckline, singing the Ranchera classic “Cielito Lindo.”
The rest of her half-hour set mixed girl group covers (Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby”), Freddy Fender classics (“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” and “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”) and Spanish crossover classics (“Besame Mucho”) sung in a massive, near operatic voice that was always one breath away from a sob. Her stage patter acknowledged her past with a wry, winking humor, often taking time to take a swig from a tequila bottle. It was an instructive performance in the context of Lilith, which often seems to demand authenticity above all else. There can be no doubt that Rivera is the real thing, but Banda music is where artifice is the order of the day.
Miranda Lambert presented the opposite problem. The former “Nashville Star” runner-up is now a top-10 country powerhouse, but she presents herself as a rebel — a tough talking, hard drinking girl who doesn’t take guff from anyone. She sings in a gruff alto, her band places electric guitars front and center (along with a bassist sporting a Mohawk), and writes songs that claim that she’s just like a city girl “only prettier” and about not being the girl “you take home to mama.” But everything about her is so manicured and straight down the middle, so lacking in soul, it’s hard to take her seriously. She’s like Lucinda Williams without any of the qualities that make Williams unique and interesting.
After all the sass and emotion, it was left to McLachlan to end the evening on a consoling note. Touring in support of “Laws of Illusion” (Nettwerk), her first new album in over a decade, she gave the audience the soft landing it desired. Her hourlong set presented itself as a palliative, a place to find comfort in a troubling world. The music is lush and measured, with touches of Carole King and Laura Nyro around the edges, and she has an open, almost motherly but sexy presence. But there’s almost a sense of a turtle pulling its head into its shell about her perf that falls somewhere between benediction and lullaby, wrapping up the evening with a hug. Not even the finale with all the performers on stage singing Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” can keep her set from feeling anticlimactic.