Nancy Falkow is in a hurry. Driving over the Ben Franklin Bridge, into the wilds of Camden, Nancy and her bandmates form a three-car caravan on the way to the E-Centre.
But the traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge is moving slowly. Crawling.
And her bass player, leading the brigade, makes a wrong turn.
"I'm freaking out," says Nancy to Chad, her boyfriend, who's driving. "I just wanna get there."
Nancy's playing a 3:30 p.m. slot at the Lilith Fair—the Lollapalooza of women in music.
Okay, so it's only noon, but Nancy's more than a little excited.
"Chad thinks I should get on stage today and say: 'Hi, I'm Nancy Falkow. And I have my period,'" she laughs nervously.
The back seat of Nancy's car is packed with amps, guitars, cords, flyers, bags and a box of Nancy Falkow CDs.
The Philly singer-songwriter has been awake since 5:30 a.m. warming up her voice.
"I was walking around the house singing Stevie Wonder's 'Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing,'" she sings it with a fluid soprano. Her voice pings like a bell—high and clean.
At 9:30 a.m. she did a guest spot on Michaela Majoun's Women's Music Hour on WXPN and told Majoun she had a few objectives beyond playing a great show: to meet Liz Phair, "and to get a backstage pass."
"Nancy, if you don't get a backstage pass," replied Majoun, "who will?"
Nancy has been waiting for this moment since last April, when she won Lilith Fair's coveted local artist slot.
This year, the festival's second tour, boasts a more diverse line-up—artists like indie rocker Liz Phair and rapper Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott were added to the line-up along with the soft-folkie fare like Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls. The Fair has controversial among women—some say it hurts women musicians by giving them a gender tag; others feel it's been a boost for musicians who might not otherwise get the opportunity.
"I'm just psyched to play with all of my heroes," says Nancy.
But back in April, you could sense the desire and drive from each and every one of the 20 female contenders.
"It was sort of like a weird Miss America pageant," recalls Nancy.
To be the Philly musician to win that one available slot could be a big break. You'd be guaranteed a decent-sized audience. You could hobnob with the likes of Sarah McLachlan and other stars. Your name would go up on the Lilith Web site.
You could put it all on your musical resumé.
The funny thing is, Nancy wasn't even supposed to play the Lilith Fair Acoustic Talent Search contest at the T.L.A. She'd been a standby addition to the women slated to compete—if one of them didn't show up, Nancy could play.
As it turned out, the fourth performer of the evening, Michelle Nagy, didn't arrive by showtime and Nancy lucked out (though Nagy eventually played later in the evening, at Nancy's insistence).
I was one of the judges (the others included Philadelphia Weekly's Joey Sweeney, DJ Cyndi Drue and Electric Factory Concerts' Jeff Gordon). Nancy wowed us with her song "Your Affair." It's a rollicking, melodic number that showcases Nancy's booming pipes and crafted songwriting—a sound somewhere between a girlish, '60s Petula Clark and a heartier, '90s Liz Phair.
The 28-year-old Margate native has been playing the Philly scene since she was an education undergrad at Temple in the early '90s and then later as a grad student in environmental studies at Beaver College. She's put out a few demo tapes and this year released her own self-titled, five-song CD. For years she's been a regular at clubs like the Pontiac Grille, Sam Adams and the Tin Angel.
Of course she still has to hold down a day job, rather, a few day jobs. She works part-time as a nursery school teacher, a doorperson at the Tin Angel and as a manager/ publicist at Tongue and Groove Studios. The latter jobs have afforded her an insider's look into the music biz—something she's come to understand quite well.
Nancy's never afraid to schmooze with the artists who play Tongue and Groove Studios. She's passed along copies of her CD to the Indigo Girls, Victoria Williams, John Hiatt and Roger McGuinn that way.
"Everybody who has come through Tongue and Groove," she boasts.
She's forged an e-mail relationship with various producers and artists such as Tony Visconti, Ron Sexsmith and Jill Sobule.
"But so far, nothing's ever gotten me any further."
Her savvy for the music and media industry has helped her in the last week—just about every radio and TV station has featured a story on her. Channel 10 has been following her trail. Channel 17 did a bit on her. Philly After Midnight aired a story on her right after she won the contest. And last Wednesday she got up at 6 a.m. to do Good Day Philadelphia for Fox. (Nancy was so excited that morning that she didn't even realize she was wearing two different shoes.)
But will the Lilith Fair prove to be anything more than a one-shot performance that only a handful of people will see?
MORNING NEWS: Nancy and Mark Getten on Good Day Philadelphia.
It's a sweltering, muggy day and the forecast calls for rain.
Nancy is dolled up in a teal flowered shirt, matching skirt and glittery eye shadow. Her brown hair curls wildly in the heat. Nancy's hardly your typical Lilith, baby-T-wearing waif. She's a big, beautiful babe to be reckoned with.
From the back seat she pulls out a set of sparkly sandals, also in teal. "Check these out," she smiles slyly.
Today her college roommate is coming to see her play. Her sister is flying in from Chicago. And her mom will be here.
Growing up, Nancy's parents didn't always encourage her singing career.
"My mom was not a stage mom. Like I wanted to play Al Alberts and she wouldn't let me. But I think that's the reason I am the way I am. I always had to do everything myself. Which was good. My parents sent me to college and grad school. But my dad's not a big fan of my career choice. He claims all the songs have been written. What can I possibly do differently?"
Pulling into the E-Centre, Nancy and her crew are directed to the Village Stage—in the back of the E-Centre. Hannah, a Lilith Fair rep, escorts Nancy to an air-conditioned, three-room trailer. Pretty swank accommodations. Nancy and her band—Scot Sax, Mark Getten (both of the band Wanderlust) and Jenny Lynn and her husband set up shop. The trailer is also for the other sidestage acts: Morcheeba, Emm Gryner, Kacy Crowley and Paris Hampton. There are baskets of fruit in each of the three rooms, coffee makers, coolers filled with beer, soda, water, salsa and tortilla chips. Everything's perfect—except for the bathroom, which doesn't work.
It's so hot and humid the band contemplates never leaving the cool comfort of the trailer. Hannah gives each of the bandmates a meal ticket to go have lunch in the cafeteria and passes that say "Artist." There's a press conference in an hour and Hannah invites Nancy to be a part of it.
"Does this pass mean I can get backstage?" asks Nancy.
"Yeah, I think so," says Hannah.
During Sarah McLachlan's sound check, Nancy and the band head backstage to use those meal tickets.
"I wanna pinch Liz Phair's butt," jokes Sax.
"Oh man, you'll get kicked out," laughs Getten.
"Hmmm. Things you can do to get kicked out of the Lilith Fair," says Sax. "Pinch Liz Phair's butt. Call Sarah McLachlan 'toots.'"
On the way back to the cafeteria, Nancy spots McLachlan.
Wearing a kelly green slip dress, McLachlan makes her way through the corridor sipping at a bottle of spring water.
Nancy can't resist the opportunity.
Without taking a breath she sputters, "Hi, I'm Nancy Falkow. I want to thank you so much for this opportunity in case I don't see you later. Thank you thank you!"
"Glad you're here!" says McLachlan, smiling. She glides on to the stage.
A security guard walking with McLachlan asks Nancy, "Hey, didn't I see you on TV yesterday?"
At the press conference in a room backstage, a crowd of reporters and TV folk assemble.
Sarah McLachlan, Emm Gryner, Rebekkah, Paris Hampton and Nancy, at the end of the line, sit behind mikes.
A reporter asks Sarah what she hopes to accomplish with Lilith Fair—in her wildest dreams.
"My wildest dreams? Total equality."
And Nancy? What does she want to get out of this year's Lilith Fair?
"I just want to gain more exposure and more fans. And I want all the brown M&M's removed from all the bowls in my dressing room."
Then it's time for Nancy to hustle back to her trailer and start setting up for her performance. As she leaves, Nancy practically knocks herself out by colliding with a Channel 6 news camera. She doesn't even notice that Liz Phair has walked in.
"We're replacing one star for another," says someone from the news crew.
"This is incredible. I'm holding back the tears. But then again, I got my period, so that might not mean much."
Back in the trailer, Kacy Crowley is straightening her hair in the bathroom and Emm Gryner's mom shows off pictures of her daughter in a spread from Canadian Young Miss magazine. "I played one [Lilith] date last year," says Gryner, a singer from Toronto. "And this year I'm playing five dates."
Crowley says the same thing. She played one date in her hometown of Austin, TX—this year she's playing several Lilith Fairs.
That gives Nancy hope.
It's 3:25 and Nancy's ready. "You have five minutes," says a Lilith techie. Everything at Lilith has been unbelievably organized and on time.
But the sky is growing dark. Underneath the tarp of the Village Stage, Nancy strums a few chords and a crowd of people wander over. Nancy begins her set with the song "Victrola," and it starts to rain. But still more people gather to watch—willing to get wet.
The band segues into the smooth, soulful "In an Afternoon."
Nancy sings the line "Some-thing's not quite right…" and the rain starts to pour—buckets.
The rain is so hard, so windy that it blows the tarp wildly and flips one of the guitars off the stage. Chad starts covering the equipment with towels and the techies frantically cover the equipment with plastic bags.
"Can you imagine if the weather had been bad?" Scot Sax jokes to the audience.
The whole band is laughing as they, too, are getting blown around. Nancy starts the next song, "Invisible," with its chorus. No one really knows the difference, except, of course, the band. She belts out the song, her voice as big as the thunderstorm.
The crowd cheers. Nancy's mom stands in the front row, wrapped in a blanket. Soaked.
"This is the song that got me here." She plays a rousing version of "Your Affair."
"We're proud of her," says her mother after the show. "She's worked really hard to get here. She could have been a brain surgeon by now. But this is what she loves to do, this is her passion. And she's actually talking to me today. Usually it's 'Mom, don't embarrass me.'"
SIGN HER UP: Falkow autographs
photo: Jennifer De Peppe
As pig-tailed Paris Hampton takes the stage, Nancy signs autographs. She sits behind a folding table in front of the Tower Records booth as young girls with Y-100 painted on their arms hold out Sharpies. Nancy smiles behind red-tinted sunglasses. She's in her glory. But after about 20 minutes, and about 15 autographs, Nancy gets antsy. She goes back stage to watch Liz Phair—and to schmooze.
It's time to work.
In the hallway, outside the cafeteria, Nancy watches the blonde alterna-queen talking to her manager. Phair's manager eyes Nancy's back-up singer Jenny Lynn, who has brought her 6-month-old baby backstage.
He walks over and asks Lynn if she'd mind hiding the baby.
"Liz has an 18-month-old and she feels really homesick. She'll get really upset if she sees the baby."
Then Nancy spots the Indigo Girls, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, sitting in the cafeteria eating pita sandwiches and making a set list. Nancy had met them before when they'd played a WXPN World Café at Tongue and Groove and when the Girls played the Appel Farm Folk Festival.
"I was a back-up singer for Joseph Parsons at Appel Farm. I gave your guitar tech my CD? Did you get it."
"No," they both reply.
"Oh, that's okay. I'm the local talent search winner for today."
"Well, hey, everyone comes out for our finale—when we sing 'Closer To Fine.' You're welcome to join us."
Nancy looks shocked. "Excuse me while I go do the happy dance."
While Phair plays, Nancy watches from the sidelines.
"I love how low her voice is," Nancy comments. "Women always try to have these melodic, acrobatic voices. But Liz's voice is so real."
When Phair comes off stage, Nancy takes a deep breath and stops her in the hallway. "Your songwriting has been a real inspiration to me. It's an honor to be on the same bill," she tells her.
"Oh stop it," Phair giggles, "You're making me feel so good."
Nancy hands the tiny blonde singer a copy of her CD. Mission two accomplished. But Nancy's already gotten more than she'd hoped for.
She spends the rest of the evening backstage waiting for her second big moment.
"You don't understand," says Nancy, fondling her backstage pass, "I've always been concert girl—trying to sneak up front or get backstage. My first concert was the Police at Atlantic City Convention Center in 1984. We had really bad seats, so I snuck up front. It was then I realized if you used those sneaky little skills you have, you can get anywhere."
The Indigo Girls take the stage, playing their soft, harmonizing folk-rock.
Nancy stands at the side of the stage. She doesn't really believe they'll let her come on.
Liz Phair and Kacy Crowley are invited on stage to sing a cover of The Band's "The Weight" and then it's Sarah McLachlan's turn to sing with the Girls. Waiting in the wings, McLachlan puts her arm around Nancy, "Are you having a fun day?"
"Oh my God. I can't thank you enough for this opportunity," she tells her again.
"Well I'd love it if you would come back on stage at the end of my set. And tell the other girls. We're going to do a cover of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Goin' On?'"
"This is incredible. I'm holding back the tears. But then again, I got my period today, so that might not mean that much."
After McLachlan sings, Emily Saliers announces, "We have a few more people we'd like to bring on."
Nancy walks on stage and Kacy Crowley comes back out with her. Though the other Lilith participants were invited on for that song, the only people around were Nancy and Kacy.
Nancy expected just to sing backing vocals, but Saliers has her sing the last verse.
Nancy sings, "I woke up with a headache like my head against a board/ Twice as cloudy as I'd been the night before." Then her voice booms operatically, "And I went in seeking clarity."
Amy and Emily both hug Nancy and tell her she did a great job. A roadie backstage says, "Girl, you can sing."
Sitting through Natalie Merchant's set backstage, Nancy picks at a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
"Even if nothing comes of this I can say I sang with the Indigo Girls. Man. How many times have I sung that song as a cover in college with my guitar in my dorm room? And I sang it with them on stage. I was doing the harmony with Amy! I was so nervous. But I went for it."
Around 10 p.m. McLachlan starts her set, the last of the evening. Her elegant, ethereal vocals soar over the stage as she sings the line "You take my breath away."
The other members of Lilith assemble backstage. Natalie Merchant sways, eating a banana. Liz Phair chats with Kacy Crowley. Missy Elliott has already left.
When McLachlan invites the women on to sing "What's Goin On?" Nancy shares a mike with Sarah.
"Sister, Sister, there's too many of us crying." they all sing, putting their arms around each other.
Walking back to the trailer, people point at Nancy, recognizing her.
"Hey she was just on stage!"
Nancy runs back to the trailer, takes off her sparkly sandals and plops down on the couch once more. There are only oranges left in the fruit basket and a few sodas. Nancy has a diet coke.
"Was that okay?" she asks. "I was adding anything to let [Sarah] know I was a good singer. Later she told me, 'Good singing Nancy.' You know she didn't have to invite the talent search winner. It was very gracious of her. And if it weren't for her, I wouldn't have been able to sing in front of 25,000 people."
Cruising back across the Ben Franklin bridge Nancy turns back to look at Camden.
"You know for months I'd look across the river and say, 'I'll be playing there soon.' I checked the [Lilith Fair] Web site every day to see if there were any updates. Now it's all over. "
Tomorrow morning Nancy has to get up and teach nursery school. And this week she has a few more gigs in town. Then she heads off for London—a self-booked tour she put together herself. Though it's obvious that her Lilith appearance has upped Nancy's profile, she can't predict its long-range effect on her career.
"When I get back I'm going to try and write some new songs. Pretty soon I need to get either a record deal or a publishing deal. Something to prove to myself, and my parents, that this isn't all nonsense."
Nancy Falkow plays Sat., July 25 at the Pontiac Grille, 304 South St., and Fri., July 31 at George's 5th Street Café, Fifth and South.