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A FAIR REASON FOR MUSIC SARAH MCLACHLAN AND FRIENDS MAKE A POINT

A young girl in the audience at Lilith Fair walked around the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center sporting cut-off shorts, a bikini top and, scrawled across her midriff in black letters, the words "I need smokes."

She certainly understood the efficacy of sex in advertising. But somehow, she seemed to be missing the point of Lilith Fair.

Then again, the tour has never billed itself as a feminist event, just a feminine one. Initiated by Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan, Lilith Fair bills itself as a "celebration" of women in music -- and no one said exactly what kind of women. Which means that Tracy Chapman's earnest folk-music, the Cardigans' tuneful pop and Fiona Apple's sultry soul songs all have a place in Lilith Fair.

So do Planned Parenthood, LifeBeat (an AIDS organization) and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, all of which made their presences known with booths or petitions.

Lilith Fair stands on no particular political platform, but its agenda is timeless: woman as the conscience of society, the caretaker of morality. It's worth noting that, aside from marginal male singers such as Billy Bragg and Bruce Cockburn, today's socially conscious music is made mainly by women.

In some cases, the statements being made are implicit rather than explicit. Fiona Apple may be about as politically controversial as Sade, but her aggressive stage presence and often frank lyrics have made her a role model for young women: adventurous, liberated, uninhibited.

And in control. When the 19-year-old walked on stage with her all-male back-up band, she was the only one wearing pants -- the rest wore dresses. (Apple's drummer looked particularly fetching in his pink waitress' uniform.)

Apple served up an impressive half-hour set in which her often mushy music took on a crisper, snappier feel. "Criminal" was a true showstopper, with Apple dropping to her knees and bringing her voice up from somewhere deep within her.

Between songs, Apple chattered amiably to the audience, fidgeting with her hair and slapping one hand to her chest like a nervous schoolgirl. Yet when an obnoxious fan interrupted her, Apple responded, "Can't you see I'm at work?"

Probably most women in the audience would like to be Apple: talented, successful and still a little ditzy. She is a model of modern young womanhood -- unlike Nina Persson, of the Cardigans, who took the stage next.

Though probably the most universally enjoyable band at Lilith Fair, the Cardigans somehow missed their mark, as they often do in concert. They're responsible for some of the most enchanting pop songs written in years (this Swedish quintet could easily usurp the throne of Abba), yet they insist on imitating American rock bands on stage. The retro charm of "Lovefool" and "Rise and Shine" disappeared amidst excessive feedback and the distracting posturing of the bassist and guitarist.

In her rocker-chick garb -- black Spandex top, leather hip huggers, black boots -- Persson recalled aggressive females such as Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett. But the bad-girl image seemed out of place at Lilith Fair, where medieval dresses and hippie jewelry were the couture de rigeur. In addition, Persson's voice could barely fill a demitasse, let alone the sold-out arena at Finger Lakes. That fragility is what makes the Cardigans so wonderful, but the band has yet to realize it.

Still, the audience appreciated the Cardigans' palette-cleansing pop before enjoying Tracy Chapman. Chapman's 50-minute set included her signature song, "Fast Car," but more impressive were "New Beginning," on which Chapman played dijeridu, and the propulsive "Tell It Like It Is." The usually sedate singer loosened up on "Give Me One Reason," a straight-ahead R & B song that brought out Chapman's more soulful, sexier side.

McLachlan, the woman most people had come to see, did not disappoint the crowd: she drew heavily from her breakthrough album, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy," playing favorites such as "Hold On," "Wait" and "Possession."

McLachlan's presence reigned over Lilith Fair with posters; T-shirts; copies of her new album, called "Surfacing"; and her self-designed Lilith Fair pendants, made from silver and recycled glass. Yet the singer played the coquette with the audience. "So, I . . . Uh, I released a new record last week," she said shyly before performing a quiet version of "Angel."

McLachlan's heavenly voice and atmospheric songs effectively brought the crowd to its feet. But her peculiar hand movements, which resemble something between conjuring magic and pulling taffy, belied an awkward stage presence. Compared to Chapman, McLachlan seemed rather one-dimensional. Only on "Possession" did she get ambitious with her voice, impressively drawing out a note for several bars.

McLachlan seemed to feel Lilith Fair had accomplished its goal. "I feel real thrilled to be able to put something like this together and have it be such a success," she told the audience. "Thank you all."

Review
Lilith Fair
Celebration of women in music.
Sunday at Finger Lakes Performing Art Center.

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