Lilith Fair event hits right note

June 23, 2023

The Lilith Fair Tribute Concert, a fundraiser for the Inverness Education Centre/Academy music program, marked its 12th annual event on June 15 and 16 at the school.

But there’s a lot more to this event than raising funds. Neil MacQuarrie, the school’s music teacher, says participating students benefit in so many ways from the concert that it’s difficult to quantify it.

“First of all, there’s the experience on the stage,” explains MacQuarrie, who graduated from the Inverness school before completing a Bachelor of Education degree at St. F.X. University. “Whether or not they pursue music in the future, that’s beside the point. They get the experience being on a stage, performing before a live audience.”

“We try to make the stage, the props and the sound and the lighting as professional as we can,” he adds. “So, we hired a company out of Antigonish called One Stop Entertainment and they provide that professional authentic sound, so the students have that experience.”

MacQuarrie says the organizing class has the experience of writing scripts, designing props, designing the stage, putting up posters around town, and advertising through social media and local newspapers.

“All of those sorts of experiences can hopefully help them in the future for whatever they want to do.”

Lilith Fair was inspired by the concert tour of the same name, which was organized by Grammy- winning Canadian artist Sarah MacLachlan in the late 90s. The tour ran over three summers and raised $10 million for charity, while also promoting female empowerment. It’s that message of gender equality that appealed to students when MacQuarrie first pitched the theme to them in 2011.

“We did some research and did some projects on (the original Lilith Fair event), and then it kind of grew from there,” MacQuarrie recalls.

That first concert featured students from the Inverness school, as well as students from Cape Breton Highlands Education Centre/Academy. In the years since, the event has welcomed performers from schools all over the province, from the Halifax area, the Annapolis Valley and, closer to home, students from schools in Whycocomagh, Cheticamp, Mabou and Port Hood, as well as schools in Guysborough and Richmond Counties.

The first two years of the event included only female performers, but in the third year they decided to open things up to male singers.

“We didn’t really want to exclude anybody, so we made it work,” MacQuarrie notes, adding that male participants are encouraged to select songs that represent the ongoing themes of female empowerment and gender equality.

This year’s concerts featured students from Cape Breton Highlands Academy, Inverness Education Centre Academy, Dalbrae Academy, Whycocomagh Education Centre and Bayview Education Centre.

The involvement of Bayview Education Centre is notable because it’s the only school participating that’s not a high school. Their participation started about seven years ago, when Peter MacInnis of West Mabou was hired as a music teacher for the Port Hood and Whycocomagh schools.

“Peter and I are pretty good friends and play in bands together too, so it was an easy transition,” MacQuarrie recalls. “He’s doing a lot of good work in those schools.”

He says MacInnis has a junior band in Port Hood and jumped at the chance to get those musicians involved.

In 2020, the COVID pandemic forced MacQuarrie and MacInnis to get a bit creative while figuring out how to keep the event alive.

“Obviously everything was shut down as far as live performances at the time,” MacQuarrie says. “So, we came up with the idea of recording the songs at home.

The youngest performers at Lilith Fair included Grade 4 students from Inverness Education Centre/Academy (L-R): Virginia Burke, Marley MacDonald, Brielle Blackwood, Mabel Ryan and Lucinda MacNeil. They sang Flowers by Miley Cyrus and were accompanied by their teacher Neil MacQuarrie on guitar. Photos: Steve Rankin Photography

“There were a lot of individual artists at the time,” he recalls. “They would record their piece at home and send it to me and then we would edit it in software programs and put it together.”

“The biggest challenge for those two years was the Inverness high school band and the Bayview band,” MacQuarrie notes. “We had to get them to record separately and then we had to splice it together, which was time-consuming, but it was definitely worth it in the end.”

The performances were available online for a week and viewers were asked to make a donation to the local food bank. Lilith Fair remained a virtual event in 2021, before returning with live performances last year. MacQuarrie says there was never any doubt that the event would go on, despite the challenges.

“We had a lot of good views and a lot of good feedback,” he says of the virtual concert. “It wasn’t as powerful as the live performance. But we kind of adapted to the situation.”

“If you stopped for even one year, it would have been really hard to get it back,” he adds.

Friday evening performers at the end of the show. Students from Whycocomagh performed at Thursday’s concert as they had an event Friday evening.

MacQuarrie says Lilith Fair will continue as long as there’s interest from the students.

“As long as the students want to play, we’ll continue to provide this opportunity for them,” he says. “I think it’s beneficial on so many different levels, and the other part of it is bringing schools together, and the students making friends.”

“And it certainly helps sustain the music program here in Inverness as far as buying the sound equipment and instruments. So, it goes back to the students in the end.”