By Bill Reed, The Gazette (Colorado Springs)
Tracy Chapman, 39, is the top coffeehouse folk singer of her generation.
Not only has she maintained a sharp political edge and folk integrity cred for the past 15 years, but she has done it while selling millions of albums and conquering the pop charts. Quite a trick.
Chapman’s sixth studio album – released in October – is appropriately titled “Let It Rain,” since she is anything but Ms. Sunshine on these 12 tracks, probing dark places in the human experience and never shaking loose from the enduring sadness that permeates her music.
Even the hopeful songs make it sound like the other shoe is about to drop.
That should come as no surprise to her fans. Ticketholders to her concert on Wednesday night at the Pikes Peak Center probably aren’t expecting to shake rump.
Although the very private star isn’t granting many interviews for her tour, recent set lists indicate that Chapman (and her six-piece band) is hitting the “Let It Rain” material hard, with a few covers and older gems tossed in.
One thing is for certain: Chapman will quietly do as she pleases.
Raised by a single mom in Cleveland, Chapman’s family scrimped and saved to buy her a guitar when she was 8. She didn’t disappoint.
Although she went to Tufts University to study anthropology and African studies, she soon started lugging that acoustic guitar into Boston’s folk clubs to try out her original tunes. A friend of a friend of a friend later, she had a record contract.
When Elektra Records put out “Tracy Chapman” in 1988, they were hoping to sell 200,000 copies of this nobody acoustic artist.
By the time Chapman had wowed a global TV audience during the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, by the time “Fast Car,” “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You” had hit radio, and by the time she was done opening for the 10,000 Maniacs on tour, this androgynous 20-something folk singer was on her way to selling 10 million albums worldwide, hauling in three Grammys (including Best New Artist) and taking her place as one of the most important folk voices since the 1960s.
While she maintains a dedicated core audience around the world, Chapman’s relationship with the commercial mainstream is definitely on-again, off-again. After her breakout debut, she released a second and third album to little fanfare.
That pop touch resurfaced on 1995’s “New Beginning,” with the monster single “Give Me One Reason.”
The song seemed to play on every radio station (reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart), it netted her a fourth Grammy for Record of the Year, and it helped to sell millions more albums.
Appearances on the Lilith Fair tour and being selected to duet with B.B. King for a new version of “The Thrill Is Gone,” kept Chapman in the public eye for a while.
Then, her fifth and sixth albums again garnered little attention.
“Let It Rain” may yet grab the public’s ear, but no hit songs are emerging so far (and many tickets remain to Wednesday’s concert).
But Chapman will keep playing her music, she’ll keep supporting her causes (She’s joining the “We the Planet” tour this fall, after her summer jaunt through theaters), and you never know when she may suddenly hit the big time one more time.
Tracy Chapman in concert
Where: Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: $28-$35; 520-7469