Careful with That Ax, Lilith

Meredith Brooks is livid. After a good twelve months of touring and national TV appearances, and after selling more than a million copies of blurring the edges, her 1997 debut album, Brooks has once again been mistaken for a mere rhythm guitarist by a big, nationally distributed guitar magazine.

"That's the kind of shit that pisses me off more than anything," she bursts after being read the odious passage. "This is exactly what people still do, which is why I couldn't let anybody else play on my album, even if I wanted to."

By anybody, Brooks means anybody male. Specifically, any male guitarist. In addition to lead vocals, she ably handled all six-string chores on blurring without any male assistance whatsoever, thank you very much. That would include all rhythm guitar tracks, all lead tracks, all inventive, experimental sounds she coaxed out of her trusty Teles and Strats -- everything that sounds like guitar and much that doesn't. Still, a national magazine prints the offensive identification "lead guitarist" next to a photo of Brooks's tour back-up guitarist, Yogi Lonich, and Brooks flies off the fretboard, so to speak.

"I can't believe that after everything I've been through, and everything I've done, some magazine would still do that to me. That is the epitome," she huffs. "This is really good. This is really good for your article, so you can get a direct reaction."

Brooks probably isn't alone in suffering the lack of credit that often befalls female rock instrumentalists. And though music history is replete with many, many stellar female guitarists, keyboardists, violinists, et cetera -- contemporary players such as guitarist Bonnie Raitt, pianists Tori Amos and Christine McVie, percussionist Sheila E., and violinist Lili Haydn, to name a representative few -- a thorough scan of a reference work such as the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll sadly turns up scant mention of female artists at all, let alone notable instrumental virtuosos.

Not that female musicians who opted to do more than sing -- and great singers are certainly not to be dismissed -- haven't had an enormous impact on music. Throughout most of the century they have clearly been equal to men, and at times dominant, in blues and gospel; and since the Sixties their presence has been consistent, if not exactly proportional, in rock and pop. Their role in the overall scheme of things is expanding, and the past couple of years in particular have seen some long-needed and very positive moves toward equality of the sexes in the historically male-dominated rock and roll world.

Successful, credible female artists are certainly more prevalent these days, especially in the wake of the early-Nineties riot grrrl movement and last year's hugely successful Lilith Fair, the top-grossing tour of 1997, which outscored even that of the Rolling Stones in attendance and income. In fact, the festival's popularity surprised many in the music industry, though the women involved don't understand why.

"How is this surprising?" asks Canadian rocker Holly McNarland, who appeared with Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan on a date two years ago that inspired the subsequent tours and who will play the second stage during Lilith's visit to Coral Sky Amphitheatre July 26. "It shouldn't be surprising," she continues. "It should be totally natural. And I think in a few years it will be. It won't be such a big deal."

Lilith is actually an even bigger deal this year, featuring, at various shows, nearly 50 respected and talented female artists -- not counting local support acts -- who will make 57 tour stops throughout the United States and Canada. Other than McLachlan, who performs on all the dates, Brooks, McNarland, and Raitt share the Coral Sky spotlight with Natalie Merchant, Queen Latifah, Holly Cole, Rebekah, and Gin and Evi Weintraub and their band INHOUSE (from West Palm Beach). Though the event was not sold-out at press time, ticket sales have been strong. Nationwide, grosses for the festival have already exceeded last year's. But with the possible exception of accomplished guitarists Brooks and Raitt, Lilith Fair is still largely a showcase for female singers. Despite the fair's reputation as a celebration of women in music, many of the band members behind the front women are men.

It is somewhat ironic that, just four days later, Coral Sky will host the summer's ultimate testosterone-fueled rock experience: Ozzfest, which was also a big hit last year, mostly because it served as a long-awaited reunion for Ozzy Osbourne and his band of old -- Black Sabbath -- and as a playground for a tortured crew of metalheads, such as Pantera and Type O Negative. Joining Ozzy this year are Tool, Megadeth, Motorhead, the Melvins, Limp Bizkit, Ultraspank, Coal Chamber, and a couple of lesser-knowns. Female lead guitarists, however, or slammin' bassists, or drop-dead fantastic drummers are virtually, if not completely, nonexistent in the Ozzfest lineup. Compare the personnel at these two festivals side by side and the gender disparities seem downright ridiculous.

Which raises questions about societal issues most rockers would never even begin to ponder, though perhaps they should. Most obvious is whether women have been discriminated against over the past, say, 30 or 40 years, by the music industry and relegated to mere window-dressing as pop figurines and sex symbols (Spice Girls, anyone?). Of course they have, but that's been discussed ad nauseam, and it seems the winds of change are finally increasing into a gale no one can ignore.

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