2003 – Tracy Chapman steps on all the bases; her diverse set keeps a crowd of 4,000 enthralled

By Jay N. Miller, The Patriot Ledger, July 21, 2003

There are few performers in any part of the musical spectrum who can sing and play with the passion and intensity of Tracy Chapman. That was evident again Friday night, when Chapman kept a crowd of about 4,000 fans enthralled for two hours at FleetBoston Pavilion.

Chapman is a master of dynamics, whether it be from a well-crafted lyric or melody, or the nuance in her vocal. There were moments in her 18-song set when something as simple as the way she strummed a chord added to the dramatic impact.

The six-piece band backing her also added to the power of her music, which always transcends her folk roots, straddles rock and pop and includes healthy helpings of funk. That might hold the key to why her audience was so diverse.

Of course local music fans know the story well, of how Chapman was not long out of Tufts University, singing in Boston area folk clubs, when her 1988 debut vaulted her almost overnight into stardom, multiplatinum sales and four Grammys. Subsequent albums haven’t made quite as big a splash, in spite of their quality, although 1996’s ‘‘Give Me One Reason’’ got Chapman another hit single. Friday’s setlist included tunes from all of Chapman’s career.

The show opened with the amiably lurching gospel funk of ‘‘Say Hallelujah’’ from Chapman’s latest CD, ‘‘Let It Rain.’’ The title cut from that album came a bit later and provided another stunning view of her artistry, her hushed vocal bringing an intimate feel to the big tent as it washed over the crowd with the plaintive chorus ‘‘give me hope when I need it most.’’

Chapman’s earthy side was more evident on ‘‘For My Lover,’’ its funky rhythm and repetitive, scat-like chorus creating a hypnotic mood. ‘‘Save a Place for Me’’ was perhaps Chapman’s vocal highlight, done with only acoustic guitar, bass and keyboards, as her voice soared through a panoply of emotions in the gentle ballad.

Chapman, 39, noted that she’d written ‘‘Fast Car’’ while alone in her Boston apartment many years ago, with only a dog for company. Friday’s version of the 1988 hit was a masterpiece of understatement, all the conflicts and frustrations subtly implied in the verses, leading to the cathartic chorus. Later on, ‘‘Talking ’Bout a Revolution’’ was a much more rousing vehicle, which had most of the crowd standing and singing along. Though Chapman was discreet with any political content – merely pointing out that the venue’s concourse had tables with info for Amnesty International and Rock the Vote – the timeless quality of her anthem was quite evident in the fans’ reaction, and when she ended it with a solo coda, the effect was galvanizing.

‘‘Telling Stories,’’ the title cut from her 2000 album, was Chapman’s chance to really stretch out, and she proved she can belt it out as potently as any rocker.

Chapman’s spidery vocal swoops added some innovative new angles to the old classic ‘‘House of the Rising Sun,’’ in what was a dramatic re-interpretation. ‘‘Give Me One Reason’’ featured even more adventurous steps, morphing from its reggae-tinged start to a funky dance workout centered on a foundation I’d have sworn was based on Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘‘Thank You (Falettinme be Mice Elf Agin).

Chapman encored with an exhilarating romp through Bob Marley’s ‘‘Get Up Stand Up,’’ and then did a moving acoustic rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’’ Chapman finished with a lilting solo take on the sweet ballad ‘‘I Am Yours.’’

Opener Joseph Arthur’s half-hour solo set was long on special effects, like backing tracks. Unfortunately, Arthur’s monotone vocals and lack of stage presence made it forgettable.

TRACY CHAPMAN – At FleetBoston Pavillion on Friday night.

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