Live / Tracy Chapman Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
In June 1988, Tracy Chapman performed at the Nelson Mandela concert with a lack of feyness matched only by the humility of her sweatshirt. Her eponymously titled album, which by July had shot to number one, melted ice caps of cynicism - in her own way, you could say, she defined a summer of love. But what did Tracy do next? She produced two albums which failed to define anything at all. Tonight, however, she has been returned.

Chapman appears with that wide-open face now framed by a Milli Vanilli hairstyle. Straight off, the audience start baying for hits. Chapman indulges us with "Sorry", then announces that this evening she'll be mixing old with a lot of new from her latest LP, New Beginnings. We give a hypocritical cheer.

An hour and a half later, the crowd hasn't moved a muscle. New songs like "The Rape of the World" simply forbid it. A woman desperately gestures to the barman for a glass of wine. "She told us not to serve anyone," he hisses (there's also a smoking ban ). If hell can incorporate such virtue, this is hell.

But then the new beginning kicks in. With "Tell It Like It Is", like a dead body bump-shocked by electrodes, Chapman is suddenly punching the air. As if on cue, the electric guitar squeals and the congas rise. Simply because she's had a resurgence of energy, however, Chapman's rich, tree-trunk voice has a chance to do its work, and the crowd start bobbing.

For the encore she proffers Creedence's "Proud Mary". Chapman is ecstatic now: she's grabbing the mike, she's loosening her capable Eddie Grant shoulders, she's dancing with her bass player. Take your pick, Trace seems to be saying, d'you want hollow profundity or heartfelt blah? The crowd vote with their feet, raising the roof with their cries for an encore, and another one.

CHARLOTTE O'SULLIVAN

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