MINNEAPOLIS — It was that time of day. Sarah McLachlan had just made her daily transition from Mom to Lilith Fair cruise director. Her two young daughters were now off at lunch with their nanny, and McLachlan was making her daily media rounds to discuss the return of the unexpectedly beleaguered Lilith Fair.
The female-music festival was a major force in the late 1990s, one of the summer’s biggest-grossing tours that gave $10 million to local women’s charities from 1997 to 1999 and opened opportunities for women in the music industry.
After an 11-year hiatus, Lilith has returned to a flurry of negative headlines. Thirteen of the originally announced 36 shows have been canceled due to soft ticket sales. Some of the biggest names on the tour — Norah Jones, Rihanna, Queen Latifah, Kelly Clarkson and Loretta Lynn — have dropped out. Tickets prices have skyrocketed, to as much as $260 for seats closest to the stage.
McLachlan, Lilith’s founder, headliner and guiding light, prefers to accentuate the positive about this year’s tour.
“We’ve had amazing audiences; they’ve just been on fire. The bands have been great. The music has been amazing. So it’s all great,” she said last week from San Diego. “What’s wrong with Lilith? Not much, in my opinion. I look at the 9,000 people who did come who had huge smiles on their face. That’s what I focus on.”
Despite McLachlan’s sunny disposition, she has taken heat for ticket prices. For instance, when Lilith was set for an outdoor field at Canterbury Park, outside Minneapolis, the tickets were $22 to $747 for VIP (including free food, souvenirs and a meeting with an artist); now that it’s been downsized to Target Center arena, prices range from $20 to $247. In 1999 at Canterbury, all Lilith tickets were $38 to see such then-hot stars as the Dixie Chicks, Indigo Girls, Sheryl Crow and McLachlan.
The Canadian superstar said this summer’s ticket prices — including subsequent discounts after sales slumped — were determined by Live Nation, the world’s largest promoter, which is handling this tour. However, a progressive soul like McLachlan teaming with the fiscally aggressive Live Nation makes about as much sense as a Democratic political candidate hiring Karl Rove to run her campaign.
McLachlan laughed at the analogy.
“I have some issues with them, but they’re trying, and they’re losing a lot of money, too; we don’t have a lot of control with what they do with ticket pricing in the end,” she said of Live Nation, which has canceled slow-selling shows this summer by the Eagles, Jonas Brothers, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna and “American Idols Live.”
No matter how McLachlan spins it, the downspiraling statistics don’t lie. In Minneapolis, where Lilith drew a tour-topping average of 27,000 people from ‘97 through ‘99, only 8,000 to 10,000 are expected to show up this time.
“For us, that’s great in this economy, considering what other tours are doing, other than maybe Nickelback,” said McLachlan. “Are we disappointed that we aren’t selling 27,000? Sure. I’m just thankful that we get to do the tour.”
McLachlan posits that attendance may be down because of the particular lineup for the Minneapolis show. Her staff is juggling a roster of more than 100 acts, the best-known of which typically play from three to six Lilith shows.
The Minneapolis lineup took a hit when Clarkson, the first “American Idol” champ, pulled out, making it two consecutive summers in which she’d bailed out of a Twin Cities concert. She has been replaced by Court Yard Hounds, who canceled their March Minneapolis gig. Fans tend to shy away from artists who have burned them at the box office.
Moreover, the core demographic of the 1990s Lilith is much like McLachlan — women with kids, making it challenging to commit to an eight-hour day/night marathon.
Nonetheless, when McLachlan, 42, looks into the audience, she sees many familiar faces.
“They are still like me. To a certain degree, I’ve brought my audience with me,” she said. “There’s a lot of a young people, too. And, quite frankly, a lot more men. Maybe their wives are all dragging them out. But I see a lot of guys, and they’re really getting into it.”
Last month, McLachlan released “Laws of Illusion,” her first studio album in seven years. Many of the songs deal with the breakup of her marriage to drummer Ashwin Sood. The tunes are penetrating and painful but liberating for her.
“I wish I could do all the new songs,” she said. “I’m headlining a festival and I need to play the songs that people want to hear, which are the older songs that everybody knows and hopefully loves. The happiest moments of the set are getting to play the new ones.”
Even the depressing songs?
“Yeah. For me, the more depressing a song is, the more joy I get out of singing it. I don’t know what that is. I was in that place of being despondent and then sad. I have a lot more objectivity now. Space and time have passed. I feel really great. I’m really happy where I am at. I feel whole again. To revisit these songs and recognize that I’m in a really different place is a sense of relief and freedom now.”
McLachlan’s daughters — Taja, 3, and India, 8 — spend one week in Vancouver with Dad and the next on tour with Mom, hanging out with Crow’s son and Erykah Badu’s daughter. McLachlan couldn’t imagine doing the tour without her kids, even though it’s more exhausting than the previous Liliths. She spends the morning and early afternoon with the girls. Then about 2 p.m., she delivers them to their nanny and undertakes her Lilith media duties. Later, she has dinner with the kids and puts them to bed about an hour before she takes the stage.
But on this day, during media time, India needs some motherly advice about her late lunch. So she interrupts the interview for a discussion about what’s on her plate.
“That sounds pretty carbo full-on,” Mom says. “Go have some carrots and cucumbers, OK? Then you come back and show me what you have, OK?”
After apologizing for doing her parental duty, McLachlan resumes talking about something that suddenly seems less important.
Will she undertake her own concert tour after Lilith? “Probably not,” she said. “I’ve got a kid in school.”
But she is planning to reprise Lilith Fair in 2011.
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