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With ample helpings of talent, style, and smarts, Lilith Fair den mother Sarah McLachlan has quickly become a business-savvy beacon for the lemminglike swarm of today’s female singer-songwriters. But gawk at the Canadian chanteuse through the rose-petal specs of her madly dedicated fans and you’ll see a much different figurehead: McLachlan clothed not in power suit and cell phone but regal crown and flowing gown. In fact, pick any one of her perennially sold-out shows and you’ll witness an unmatched display of pop adulation: From the opener to the encore, an endless line of fans offers up flowers, T-shirts, and sappy Hallmark cards at the singer’s feet. And, like a member of royalty, McLachlan bends at the waist, smiles warmly, and whispers a solemn thank-you to each well-wisher. (Well, at least she doesn’t pat them on the head.)
So, with such undying affection from the groundlings, it’s a wonder that McLachlan has rewarded her minions with Mirrorball, a live—but all too safe and staid—run-through of her biggest hits to date. There is no new material here, and the surprises are few. And with the wispy Queen Mum’s insistence on perfection—her sound is always crystalline, her band always tight—there are very few candid moments (not counting the constant crowd hurrahs) to distance these 14 tracks from their studio versions.
Mirrorball’s greatest strength is—no surprise—also McLachlan’s greatest strength: those phenomenal pipes that effortlessly separate her from almost every other contemporary vocalist—with maybe the exception of Alison Krauss—contributing to popular music. Although she rarely lets her vocals, or her songs, stray into uncharted territory, the results are gorgeous when she does. On “The Path of Thorns (Terms),” from the 1991 album Solace, McLachlan summons the betrayed spirit of Sinead O’Connor and lets loose a Celtic wail aimed at a lame lover. “Adia,” as unlikely a radio hit as you’ll find, becomes an epic, “Layla”-esque letter to a spiritual sister let down by life’s promises. “Sweet Surrender,” a feisty blend of instrumental leather and vocal lace, proves that McLachlan can indeed rock a little when the mood is right. And concert staple “Ice Cream” turns into a sweet sing-along that no doubt left the singer avalanched by flora.
Despite the promising presence of hiphop (Queen Latifah), funk (Me’Shell Ndegeocello), and blues (Bonnie Raitt) acts, Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music Vols. 2 & 3, recorded during the 1998 tour, are more sadly uninspired recent projects from the mind of McLachlan—yet they’re nevertheless better than that blah double-disc first volume.
On Volume 2, McLachlan and Emmylou Harris pair up for an aching, slightly creepy “Angel” (where was that creativity on Mirrorball?), and Shawn Colvin contributes a smart, sweet “New Thing Now,” her time-lapse take on the slow march to middle age. Strangely, Natalie Merchant, who was criticized for her lackluster performances on last year’s tour, provides the centerpiece for this spread: Her version of the King’s “In the Ghetto” manages to be both poignant and amusing, with the singer’s alto flowing high-low all over the hopeful ‘hood. (Disappointingly flat performances include Latifah’s “Life” and Morcheeba’s “The Sea.” Plus, who invited Lisa Loeb to the party?)
Volume 3 stacks up as the better collection by far, with Ndegeocello kick-starting the festivities with a down ‘n’ dirty “Soul Record” and Luscious Jackson jacking up its funk vibe with a bass-flooded “Naked Eye.” Liz Phair shows that her stage fright is yesterday’s problem with a strong “Never Said,” and McLachlan again tops most everything she put on Mirrorball with “Black & White,” a forgotten track from Surfacing. But the best cut here—and actually the best cut on any Lilith package—is the fireworks finale, Raitt’s slide-sticky “Spit of Love.” Talk about female domination: The veteran redheaded rocker howls over her classic guitar until the last few seconds, when waves of distortion pound harder and harder and the too-polite Lilith Fair brilliantly morphs into Monsters of Metal. Figures Raitt would know how to wake these women up; McLachlan should beg her to play every tour.
McLachlan prefaced the announcement of this year’s celebration by saying that the 1999 version of Lilith would also be the last version of Lilith—which should make the pagan-cult-fearing Jerry Falwell a happy guy. She’s tired; she wants to start a family with husband and bandmate Ash Sood; she wants to get back into the studio. Whatever. The demise of McLachlan’s history-altering brainchild is premature: Fan interest is at an all-time high—not to mention it’s the only sure thing in the concert industry these days. And, hell, if Lilith leaders are gonna keep on crankin’ out best-of collections, they should help themselves by booting bands like Sixpence None the Richer and letting more soul mamas like Raitt into the clubhouse. CP