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Lilith Fair women a group dynamic

Bonnie Raitt surveyed the masses at Lilith Fair on Saturday at Coca-Cola Starplex and broke into a wide grin at all the teenage girls she saw staring back at her.

“Man, one of these girls is probably gonna be kicking my ass on guitar in about 10 years… Bonnie Ray Vaughn’s on her way!”

After hearing Ms. Raitt coax soaring blues-rock riffs from her instrument, we can only hope so. But most of the high points from this year’s female-led caravan had little to do with the traditionally macho world of guitar solos and everything to do with good-old fashioned songwriting. The two tuneful leaders of the pack were two of the lesser-known acts on the bill: Chicago rocker Liz Phair and country-blues-folk singer (and former Austinite) Lucinda Williams.

Ms. Williams devoted her set to songs from her stellar new album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, keeping a songbook on a stool nearby in case she forgot the lyrics. But she tore through twang-rock gems such as “Metal Firecracker” and “Right in Time” as if she’d been playing them for a decade, then switched gears into “Greenville”, the most haunting ballad you’re likely to hear all year. Never mind the blistering 6 p.m. sun beating down on her face, she sang with the cool confidence of one of her idols, Loretta Lynn.

Ms. Phair, on the other hand, used to be so stricken with stage fright her voice would wobble and crack. But she, too, sang with newfound verve and authority. She might have been wearing a pink flower in her hair, but there was nothing remotely delicate in the way she belted out crafty punk-pop tunes such as “Supernova”, “Polyester Bride” and “6’1″”.

But her boldest move was playing her brand new tune “Johnny Feelgood”, the story of a woman who takes pleasure in the beatings her misogynist lover gives her — not exactly the type of song most fans come to Lilith Fair to hear.

The crowd gave a much warmer response to “Tyrone”, Erykah Badu’s witty kiss-off to a no-goodnik boyfriend. Though the crowd was 99 percent white, the Dallas R&B diva had no problem winning it over with her esoteric blend of jazz, funk and soul.

Ms. Raitt’s set was twice as good as her tentative show at the Bronco Bowl earlier this year. Balancing her stinging slide guitar against Jon Cleary’s ribald New Orleans piano work, she turned the Fabulous Thunderbird’s “I Believe I’m in Love With You” into razor-edged boogie.

The show’s only major disappoinment was Natalie Merchant’s shaky performance. The ex-10,000 Maniacs singer started out on a promising note with a bluesy, a cappella version of Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas”. But the rest of her set was plagued by sour vocal notes (too much dancing, not enough breathing, perhaps).

Lilith organizer Sarah McLachlan closed the eight-hour show with an oft-wispy set that threatend to float away until she anchored it with the tough, hip-hop flavored “Possession”. But she did a fine job of lacing her melancholy music with humor — such as proposing a state of mass nakedness on really hot nights such as Saturday, and then drenching the crowd with a Supersoaker water gun while her band played “Wipeout”. Instead of ending her set with one of her hits, she invited the entire Lilith cast onstage for a resounding version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”.

By Thor Christensen, Pop Music Critic of The Dallas Morning News
The Dallas Morning News, August 2, 1998

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