Ladies' Night -- Women Take The Stage As Lilith Fair Rocks The Gorge

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"The Lilith Fair: A Celebration of Women in Music": Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, 5 p.m. Saturday, Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Grant County; $38-$50, 206-628-0888. Gorge Information Line: 206-464-2000, ext. 7469. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Due primarily to the financial success of the so-called alternative festival Lollapalooza, large "package" tours now dominate the music business' traditionally quiet summer season.

In addition to Lollapalooza, festivals begging for bucks this year include H.O.R.D.E., Furthur, the Warped Tour, Smokin' Grooves and Ozzfest, not to mention the disaster that is the new ROAR tour with Iggy Pop. At its best, the multiband format exposes great new artists. But all too often, the lineup is a list of alt-rock's newest noisemakers with one "star" either needing the support or carrying the show.

One of the year's most intriguing festivals is the Lilith Fair, which begins its nationwide tour at the Gorge Amphitheatre on Saturday. As the double-stage, 32-date extravaganza winds its way across the U.S., the lineup will change periodically with headliner and Lilith Fair organizer Sarah McLachlan remaining constant. At the Gorge, the main stage also includes Tracy Chapman, Jewel, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega.

But wait a minute - it's a bunch of girls!

Yes, quite; that's the whole idea. In a recent Associated Press interview, McLachlan said she found it dismaying that half the world's population was still poorly represented in rock, especially in the live format. Indeed, when she requested R&B singer Paula Cole as her opening act a few years ago, promoters openly scorned her because "audiences wouldn't want to see two women on the same bill."

The Lilith Fair is set to re-address such bigotry and sexism.

This extensive tour follows an eight-month period of relative isolation for McLachlan, during which she wrote and recorded her fourth album, "Surfacing," to be released July 15. After 10 years in the business, the 29-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter found wider acclaim with her Grammy-nominated, double-platinum 1994 release, "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy." Backed by her proficient band - which includes Sarah's new husband, drummer Ashwin Sood, and bassist Jim Creeggan of the Canadian roots-rock band Barenaked Ladies - McLachlan's passionate warm soprano dominates the funky, often ambient music of "Surfacing."

Success was more immediate for Cleveland singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, who sold more than 10 million copies of her 1988 eponymous debut album. With her latest release, 1995's "New Beginning," Chapman continues to enlighten on one-world goals such as peace and conservation, and remains one of world music's most popular artists and one of modern music's most intelligent.

The literal rags-to-riches story of 23-year-old singer Jewel Kilcher is inspiring to everyone, but especially to young women. After surviving a time when she was so broke that meal times did not exist and she called a VW van her home in San Diego, Jewel hit it big with the gritty coffeehouse folk-pop of her '95 debut release, "Pieces of You." The album sold more than 2 million copies and earned a couple of Grammy nominations. Two years on, it is still spawning hit singles; the latest cut, "You Were Meant for Me," sits comfortably in Billboard's Top 10 after peaking at No. 2.

Thanks to the support of believers like McLachlan, but mostly due to her own soulful singing powers, Paula Cole is also seeing success on the singles charts. Her song "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" recently entered the Top 10 on the R&B chart.

Twelve years ago, Suzanne Vega's career took off with her hit single "Luka." Since then, Vega has gone from strength to strength, honing her Greenwich Village-meets-Holly Golightly bohemian pop into the jazzy, savvy songs of her latest album, "Nine Objects of Desire," released last fall.

As such strong role models as Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani of No Doubt have dominated two years' worth of album sales, the music business must now acknowledge women as serious music-makers and not just pouty mouthpieces. Just as Lollapalooza turned its progenitor, Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction, into a major industry player, the Lilith Fair, if successful, will put one "little lady" well and truly on the map.