LILITH FAIR-TO-MIDDLIN': Of all of the traveling summer festival tours--Warped, HORDE, Ozz Fest--the Lilith Fair is arguably the most broadly defined and eclectic in terms of musical sensibilities. The groove of Lilith is less a musical one than a vague metaphysical one. It's a festival of women. On either side of the main stage were huge banners depicting a fully exposed Venus de Milo floating on a blue background and surrounded by tiny, buzzing, presumably male, cherubs.

Sound Bites Women buy their share of music, but you wouldn't know it to go to most major music festivals--say the Warped Tour or the Ozz Fest. Enter Lilith. The crowd was easily two-thirds female, and widely varied in age, economic status and lifestyle. The majority of men present (few to begin with) had a female escort; and the males roaming at large seemed oddly polite, as if tempered by second-hand hits of estrogen. Despite temperatures upwards of 111 degrees, there was, amazingly, nary a bare-chested man in the joint. Which makes me wonder if most of the toilet seats were left down as well.

Shortly before the main stage kick-off, a woman with dark, short-cropped hair, RayBans and an authoritarian air turned abruptly to an acquaintance in the row behind her and prodded her with an elbow, asking, "So, who'd you really come to see?"

Enter the success of the Lilith Fair: A line-up with no edifying principle beyond being composed of either female artists or female-fronted bands ensures not only an interesting dynamic, but a number of acts bound to be unknown or unexpected to an equally diverse audience.

The conglomeration of artists represented almost every share of the market, ranging globally in musical genres. The main stage artists were, in order of appearance: Liz Phair, Erykah Badu, Indigo Girls, Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan. The B stage featured Angelique Kidjo, N'Dea Davenport and K's Choice. Afternoon shows by 22 Brides, Fisher and Ana Gasteyer were featured on the Village stage. Viewed from above, the three stages formed a triangle with the sunburned audience concentrated pinkly inside.

Although I had an interest in many of the performers, in all honesty, my answer to the woman in the RayBans would definitely have been "Liz Phair." Unlike many of the other performers, Phair rarely appears live. So her burst into the limelight on the main stage at Lilith, just prior to the release of her long-awaited third album, intrigued me. It seemed the sort of booking that made good marketing sense--Phair and second-stagers K's Choice lended an alterna-edge that last year's Lilith lacked, and in the process each gained access to a wider audience.

I'd never seen Phair live, and was curious about not only what songs she would choose and how she would orchestrate them, but also how she'd handle the performance given her rumored stage fright...and if she'd prove worthy of the main stage slot with her heavy-hitting peers.

Phair's whitechocolate-spaceegg has been "soon-to-be-released" for the past year, and is finally due in stores mid-August. The rumors--denied by her label, Matador Records--were that the hold-up was because the demo was deemed unacceptable, rejected by the label and returned for major revisions. Journalists speculated about the effect of her new motherhood on her music and her attitude (as always seems to be the case when a popular female artist has a child), fearing that the notoriously feisty Phair may go soft.

When she stepped out on stage in a long, pink-and-blue batik frock and enormous, white Spice Girl wedgies, I found myself wondering as well. Backed by an all-male ensemble of keyboards, bass, drums and guitar, Phair appeared convivial if a bit bewildered as she launched into "6'1." The band sweetly delivered clean and largely uninspired pop renderings of "Super Nova" and "Divorce Song," interspersed with a smattering of new material presumably from the forthcoming release. The new songs were heavy on the pop, highly polished and uncharacteristically upbeat--to the extent that at times I thought Belinda Carlisle had stepped in.

Although Phair's lyrical style is personal, confrontational and often poetic, her live performance bore none of this. Her few feeble attempts to establish a rapport with the audience fell as flatly as they were delivered. Although she did seem confident and unafraid, her show of ease appeared forced and she gave the impression that she was not quite sure what to do with herself up on that big stage.

Despite her wooden, perfunctory performance, I don't think Phair lost any fans--but I doubt she gained any, either. By contrast, Davenport and Kidjo were energetic and engaging on the second stage (where Phair really belonged), and enjoyed well-deserved enthusiasm from the crowd. In spite of a lackluster live show, I'm still anxious for a second taste of whitechocolatespaceegg. And I'm already looking forward to what's in store for Lilith's junior year.

LOCAL FIESTA: The release party for the TAMMIES '98 compilation CD, Cantankerous, is now firmly set for 8 p.m. Saturday, July 11, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Like the disc, the show includes appearances by many of Tucson's favorite bands--Shoebomb, Greyhound Soul, The Phantom Limbs, Funky Bonz, 35 Summers, The Studrifters, Sapphire Kieft, Creosote, and TAMMIES '98 "Band of the Year" Crawdaddy-O. And unlike the Club Crawl, this show is open to all ages, with the tap flowing for those with ID. Tickets are a slim $4 at the door. Call 795-1420 for more information.

LAST NOTES: The blues are sizzling this summer at The Boondocks, 3306 N. First Ave. Miss Lavelle White returns to the scorching pueblo, appearing at Boondock's Sunday Blues & BBQ at 4 p.m. on July 5. Tickets are $7 in advance, $5 for TBS members. Queens, New York, blues outfit Little Mike and the Tornadoes deliver the maximum blues at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 9. Tickets are $10 in advance, $7 for TBS members. Call 690-0991 for information.

Tucson's only free, weekly music festival, Monsoon Madness, continues from 7 to 10 p.m. this Thursday, July 2, with performances by Greyhound Soul and Tommy Tucker. Stop down at Winsett Park, in the 300 block on the east side of North Fourth Avenue. Musicians interested in participating in the Madness can contact the Fourth Avenue Merchant's Association at 624-5004 for information. TW

--Lisa Weeks

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