NEW YORK — In the late 1980s, I went to a Tracy Chapman concert at Carnegie Hall, shortly after the release of her second album, "Crossroads." The show was a bit slow and not a little boring; although the singer was in excellent voice, the music was often slow and lugubrious. The audience was restless.
But then, in the middle of the show, she played a blues song, without mentioning its title. It had an insistent beat, a memorable melody, a defiant air, and it electrified the house. After the show I went home and played both albums, looking in vain for the song. It was nowhere to be found.
Until several months ago, that is, when I heard it on the radio. And heard it again and again. The song is "Give Me One Reason," and it has reenergized Chapman's career. After several years of commercial obscurity, the singer has a top-10 single and album.
Chapman's socially conscious folk music fell out of favor in an era dominated by rhythm and blues and dance music. Eras, however, are remarkably short in pop music, and now that adult contemporary stations are all over the airwaves, she's found a niche. Her current album, "New Beginning," contains some politically oriented material - "The Rape of the World" is a strong statement about ecology - but it also contains love songs.
Performing in concert recently in Central Park, the singer seemed quite ebullient, in marked contrast to her earlier, somewhat dour persona. In excellent voice and with the support of a superb, five-piece band, she played most of the new album, as well as all the old favorites ("Fast Car," "For My Lover," "Talking 'Bout a Revolution").
Seven years ago, she barely cracked a smile while performing. Now she's a veritable Carol Burnett; one of the show's highlights was her comic reading of several three-by-five index cards on which audience members had written comments before the show. She saved her current hit for the end of the show, and the audience sang along.
For the encore, Chapman sang James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)," and it was easy to believe her.
*Tracy Chapman performs at the Greek Theatre in San Francisco Aug. 24.