- Tracy Chapman at Colston Hall, Bristol – By Stephen Dalton, The Times, December 16, 2008
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of her hugely successful self-titled debut album, Tracy Chapman began her latest British mini-tour in Bristol with a low-key solo show, recalling her early days as a coffee-house troubadour. Between numbers, the 44-year-old singer’s rambling monologues and polite jokes were greeted with gales of laughter and loud declarations of love. According to the seasoned Tracy-philes sitting by me, this level of audience interaction is unprecedented from the normally taciturn neo-folkie.
Chapman played three tracks from her latest album, Our Bright Future, but otherwise overlooked her more recent, less commercially successful releases. Significantly, perhaps, almost half the set was drawn from her chart-topping 1988 debut, still her musical calling card. Muted protest ballads such as Behind the Wall and the twinkling escape-fantasy classic Fast Car have lost little of their quietly insistent beauty, earning a rapturous singalong reception in Bristol.
With her Obama-like background as the child of an impoverished single mother who earned a scholarship to a private school and Ivy League academia, Chapman remains a rare and impressive figure in modern pop. But her mournful guitar-strumming sermons on race, poverty, George Bush and Hurricane Katrina can still grate with their box-ticking worthiness. Noble sentiments, of course, but so boringly expressed.
Chapman is a disarmingly sweet performer, but the hedonistic release of great soul music still eludes her. Famously tight-lipped about her love life, even her best-known affair with the author Alice Walker, she gave precious little away in Bristol. She sang about passion and anger, but never gave any indication of having experienced these emotions first-hand.
When she tackled the louche jazzy confessional I Did It All, a highlight from her new album, Chapman even felt compelled to issue multiple killjoy disclaimers stressing that the song’s boozy-floozy narrator is emphatically not autobiographical. Which is a shame, because that Tracy sounds like a lot of fun, fictional or otherwise. Perhaps the lady doth protest too much, but a little more of this vampish swagger would have enlivened her overly wholesome set.