There was a time, in the 1990s, when the reigning queen of alt-rock was not a riot grrrl or a coffee shop troubadour, but a mythological Judaic folk hero. Her name was Lilith and, unlike other female religious figures, she didn’t take shit from anybody — especially Adam. When he scoffed at her claims of equality, she packed her bags and marched straight out of the Garden of Eden, forcing God to nab one of Adam’s ribs and create a more obedient companion for his number one creation, which he later named Eve. Because of that act of subversion, Lilith came to represent feminine strength, the struggle for gender rights and, according to some philosophers, the manifestation of men’s secret fear of women. And a few thousand years later, she became, naturally, the namesake of a traveling all-girl music festival.
Starting in 1997, the Lilith Fair helped launch the careers of Jewel, Dido and Nelly Furtado, among others, and briefly elevated founder Sarah McLachlan to icon status. It ended only three years later, but not before proving that massive package tours don’t need testosterone to be successful. Now, a local philanthropy group is once again invoking the image of Lilith for its own estrogen-based concert — albeit one on a much smaller level than those that previously bore her name.
“It’s an identity that people can grasp,” says Jon Toriumi, founding director of the MOSAIC Projects and organizer of what he’s calling, appropriately, Little Lilith Fair. On April 1, at the Underground in Ventura, Toriumi is holding the first in a series of fundraisers, this one benefiting the Day-Break Transitional House, which offers temporary food and lodging for women who’ve just been released from prison. There are no Sheryl Crows, Liz Phairs or Sinead O’Connors here, just regulars of the acoustic folk scenes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Keeping it homegrown is part of the ideology. “We don’t bring in headliners, we work with local talent and agencies that are young and struggling but doing significant work; they may not be business savvy, but they’re good at what they’re doing.”
Toriumi officially started the MOSAIC Projects in 2000, although a version of it had existed in a looser form since 1998. He describes the organization in two ways: from a business perspective, it’s a “catalytic marketing group” that assists charities in promoting their causes; from a religious perspective, it’s a “missionary agency.” He quickly found that churches do the majority of successful charitable work, but that, in some instances, they needed a better medium to convey their message. That’s when it dawned on him to forge a bond between the county’s religious and artistic communities. “Church people sometimes have a difficult time communicating the heart of the issue,” he says. “Artists, musicians and poets do a fantastic job of that.”
Toriumi began connecting with the open mic community, which hatched the idea of a benefit concert. He decided to make Day Break the focus because, he says, “it fulfills the profile. It’s a singular-type committee that’s taken on a huge mission.” The Little Lilith Fair concept came later. For Toriumi, combining female songwriters with the plight of women trying to restart their lives after getting after out of jail was a logical fit. “They have the same journey. They’re pioneering something new that mainstream society doesn’t view as a resource. Society doesn’t promote them to do it.”
He started to round up performers he knew from open mics in Isla Vista and Ventura. Many were enthusiastic about the idea. “JT asked if I wanted to play, and I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’” says Jessica Jackson, 19. She believes it’s important for women to show their unity and is hoping that seeing so many local female artists will inspire her to continue writing songs. “I think I’ll make a lot of connections.” A lot of the musicians on the bill hover around Jackson’s age. But others, like Sally LaMacchia, have been playing for years — just not often in front of other people. “If I can get off stage without fainting, that’ll be good,” she jokes.
From here, Toriumi is planning, in the tradition of the big Lilith Fair, to take the show on the road, organizing similarly styled concerts in Santa Barbara, San Francisco and even Hawaii. He wants to keep each gathering small-scale and local because he views that as the best way to spread the advocacy of the groups he champions.
“They use the talent of heart-language,” he says, “the language of music and poetry to connect with the audience and community.”