I have this enduring image of Tracy Chapman. She's up on-stage, alone with her guitar in front of 60,000 people at a stop on an Amnesty International tour. Headliners Peter Gabriel, Sting and Bruce Springsteen are hours away, and the natives are restless. The demure, soft-spoken Chapman is tentative, managing a few smiles and even fewer words between songs as she struggles through her set. When it's over, she shuffles nervously into the wings.
If there was ever an unlikely case for stardom, it's Chapman, the media shy, Cleveland-raised folksinger with that distinctive, jerky alto-vibrato and the poignant lyrics about romance and revolution. A couple of years before grunge broke big, with the music industry awash in the bombast of arena rock, Chapman's 1988 self-titled debut was a welcome breath of simplicity and restraint. The media latched onto it immediately, hailing Chapman as a female, dreadlocked Bob Dylan. It was a standard no artist could live up to, and when she released a follow-up a year later, Chapman's gimmick had apparently worn off, prompting her to further retreat from the spotlight.
To say that Chapman's 1996 comeback is a surprise would be an understatement. But you get the sense the Chapman herself could see it coming. Titling her latest CD New Beginning, Chapman has fleshed out and pumped up her sound with a larger band, showing that she's come to grips with the outside pressure to succeed -- and done so on her own terms. A rather unlikely hit single, the mellow, bluesy "Give Me One Reason," accentuates Chapman's stubborn resolve. Though her solutions to the world's problems still tend toward the naive, and her decision to distribute packets of seeds to concertgoers is somewhat contrived, Chapman continues to tap a seemingly bottomless well of compelling melodies. And it's still difficult to dismiss the raw emotion in her voice. Those are things that got her noticed in the first place, and they haven't failed her yet.
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Tracy Chapman performs at 8 p.m. Friday, August 16, at Cullen Performance Hall, University of Houston. Sold out. For info, call 629-3700.
Coolio -- Vibe magazine recently posed this question to its readers: "Is Coolio the reincarnation of M.C. Hammer?" Hardly. Anyone who's heard anything from Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise knows that he bears zero similarity to old parachute-pants. Hailing from the gangsta rap utopia of Compton, Coolio has a laid-back but potent hip-hop style that's infused with the hard life-lessons he learned while growing up. Coolio (a.k.a. Artist Ivey) was once considered a nerd -- a straight-A student with a love for fantasy novels who used to get bullied after school. Then he started rolling with the Crips, and the prey became the predator. He served jail time and later found solace in crack. Rap gave Coolio the tools he needed to rise above his surroundings. On "Fantastic Voyage," the first hit off his 1994 debut, It Takes a Thief, the rap artist waxed fluent about "a place where my kids can play outside / Without living in fear of a drive-by." That positive message was enough to make people take notice, but it was the title tune that rocketed Coolio from one-hit wonder to full-tilt rap prophet, garnering him critical praise and an impressive number of awards. The accolades were well-deserved. While other reality rappers swim in cap-popping, girlie-shagging attitude, Coolio, 32 and father of six, proves that you can celebrate a hard life without glorifying it. At the Houston Arena Theatre, 7324 Southwest Freeway, at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 17. Tickets are $22.50 and $27.50. Delinquent Habits opens. 629-3700. (Craig D. Lindsey)
Mem Shannon -- As a source for good blues material, it's hard to imagine a mother lode richer than a cabby's life. New Orleans bluesman Mem Shannon only recently retired from more than a decade plying the streets of the Crescent City, and his experiences with tourists, whores, lawyers, scam artists and other denizens of the night riddle his original song-stories. A step outside the usual fare of cheatin' and drinkin', Shannon's lyrics are engaging and often funny, but never too far removed from the cold, hard facts of life. New Orleans guitarists generally get less credit than their keyboard cousins, but Shannon has joined a small cadre that's changing the perception of New Orleans as a six-string wasteland. Taking a page from the book of legendary street musician and primary influence Snooks Eaglin, Shannon swings equally well on acoustic or electric guitar, and can strum or pick it funky, straight, jazzy or inflected with those familiar regional R&B beats, all without dropping a note. Look for Shannon, who's visiting with a stripped-down version of his neighborhood band, the Membership, to deliver a three-hour lowdown on New Orleans music and culture that only ten years behind the wheel and a life in the trenches could produce. At McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, at 9 p.m. Friday, August 16. Tickets are $8. 528-5999. (Bob Burtman