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Tracy Chapman Sings of Society's Blues

September 21, 1992|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Current events have caught up with Tracy Chapman.

Like many Americans, the singer seems a bit perplexed by the urban strife that exploded last April in Los Angeles. Accordingly, she opened her concert at the Pacific Amphitheatre on Saturday with a song that spoke of the night "the riots begin" as the death of "the dream of America," and yet closed the set with another song calling for "poor people (to) rise up and get their share."

The remarkable thing is that both those songs, "Across the Lines" and "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," appeared on her 1988 debut album and were actually written as far back as 1985 and 1982, respectively. Saturday they framed Chapman's show with a clear message: The riots may not have been the answer, but things have got to change.

In the relatively intimate setting of the Pacific's "pavilion" formulation--with only the front few thousand seats used--Chapman, backed by an unobtrusive though uninspiring five-man band, gave those could-be contradictory messages a winning personal pitch. Her familiar placid yet passionate delivery fleshed out the complexities behind the platitudes.

But between those songs Chapman devoted so much time to singing about downtrodden people's dreams of a better world that it wouldn't have been surprising for her to cap the show off with the Depression-era hobo fantasy "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The show was dominated by the likes of "Dreaming on a World," from her new third album, "Matters of the Heart," which wishes for "a world with equality and justice . . . where all people live in peace."

That's all well and good, but Chapman failed to offer any suggestions for how to achieve that utopia, save for making a between-song plea for people to register and vote. And, like many others, she tends to paint in broad strokes, especially when identifying the sources of oppression. In her songs, these tend to be the nameless, faceless forces of greed and hatred--easy targets to sing about, but impossible to combat in any constructive and effective way.

Still, it's this tendency to distill the issues to good-and-bad-guy simplicity that also makes for her greatest strength: her economy of words and music. With her new material she seems to really have hit her stride as a lyricist, poetically opening peepholes into complicated emotional landscapes that advance upon the spare, affecting imagery of the first album's "Fast Car" (still her biggest hit) and "For My Lover."

And a few times on Saturday, Chapman opened a peephole into her own emotions. Best was an apparently spontaneous encore of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." Chapman seemed almost transformed as she buoyantly played the choppy chords and sang the joyous words--a personal revolution that a fan can actually see and feel.

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