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“Better hope the fire marshal doesn’t come,” the 9:30 Club doorman remarked sarcastically as he ID’d and clicked in a couple of people for the Lilith Fair Acoustic Talent Search Tuesday evening. The place was far from crowded. About halfway through the 20 acts, the bottom floor had filled up respectably, but it was clear that most of the attendees were friends or family of the performers.
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Beyond the double doors into the main room, a black female guitarist backed by a white guy sang something grim and mostly unintelligible, in a Tracy Chapman vein. Though the singer wasn’t any worse thanor for that matter, much different fromthose who followed her, she packed up her six-string and left long before the judging, apparently certain of failure. A succession of drab female vocalists came and went, mainly leaving impressions of their respective Lilith Fair archetypes within seconds of their first verses: Mostly Alanis with a touch of Jewel….Oh, they’re very Indigo Girls. By the time the second Tracy Chapman took the stage, I began to wonder whether I was imagining the similaritiesuntil the WHFS MC confirmed my thoughts with a lame attempt at pseudo-Carson Daly wit. “So, Tracy Chapman is playing this year’s Lilith Fair, I see,” he said.
A Sheryl Crow in a flashy pink velour jacket thought that her band’s music was perfect for the Fair. “It’s all about expressing ourselves as women,” she said. But from the turnout of hopefuls, it seemed more about expressing ourselves as certain women in particular. The angel-faced Jewel with Alanis’ howl (“You’re trapped inside this burning…” whatever) cited Shawn Colvin and Joni Mitchell as her influences. She normally performed in a more “aggressive” style, she indicated, but had trimmed her sound for this acoustic showcase. Even with such formidable gods and the proper adjustments, she admitted to having no chance of winning. “The girl after me blew me away,” she said. “She was fucking great.”
The woman to whom she was referring was “Northern Virginia’s own, Nicki Gonzalez.” The 24-year-old Gonzalez, a perky executive assistant and single mom, has been moonlighting as a singer in the D.C. area for about five years; her band plays regularly in Adams Morgan. Though she, too, tried to tailor her band’s sound for Lilith, Gonzalez stuck with her charismatic, jazzy vocals and received a noteworthy crowd response. Her approach was just a little differentLilith die-hards might say more blasphemousfrom that of the others hoping to make it onto the tour. “There is no jazz in the Lilith Fair program,” she stated by way of explaining her confidence. “Our sound is differentit’s a different feeland I think the Lilith Fair could use that.” Maybe. But as it happened, the judges picked spoken-word artist Toni Blackman. The award for self-deprecation, however, goes to the group that called itself, presciently, Little Failures.Neil Drumming