At one time, there seemed to be no getting away from Tracy Chapman – everyone had her self-titled first album, from schoolchildren and students to old folkies on the lookout for the next Bob Dylan. When she performed at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday concert at Wembley in 1988, her insistently trembling voice and talk of revolution moved the masses.
But the Cleveland-born singer-songwriter never matched the success of her debut and slowly faded from view, though she never really went away. Her 2001 retrospective compilation shifted more than 350,000 copies in the UK, and, while Ms Dynamite may now be the thinking person's protest singer, Chapman can still pull a crowd.
At 38, she's instantly recognisable with her shuffling gait and shy smile. The screams of, "Tracy, we love you," seem slightly misplaced – she's the sort of artist who should inspire quiet reverence rather than hysterical yelling – although they attest to her abiding appeal.
You sense, however, that Chapman would prefer it if we weren't here. For the first half-hour she seems hunched and awkward, and between songs says nothing. When she finally plucks up the courage to speak, it's about the weather. "We've been on tour for a month, but it didn't rain until we got to Britain," she mumbles. "Ah, but summer's on its way," replies one punter hopefully. There ends the idle chit-chat.
Chapman's singing is something else, though. Hers is the kind of voice that can magnify any mood. One minute it's rich and powerful, the next it's so vulnerable that you want to drag her off stage and drip-feed her sweet tea. Going on the strength of the cheers that accompany the old songs, it's clearly nostalgia that brings the people out. "Behind the Wall," the a cappella song that describes a neighbour listening through the wall to the domestic violence next door, has lost none of its potency, while "Sorry" and "Fast Car" are similarly stirring. I guess it's inevitable that the newer numbers, some of them out-and-out love songs, fall a little flat.
Chapman's shift in focus is thrown into sharp relief as her gritty politicised tracks contrast with songs from her latest album, Let It Rain. "Across the Lines" ("Who would dare to go/ Under the bridge/ Over the tracks/ That separate whites from black") is deeply moving, though the relentlessly upbeat "Say Hallelujah" ("Have mercy/ It's a wonderful life/ Eternal rest for the weary/ Mourners party tonight") fails to engage.
Still, our host looks as if she's enjoying herself at last and even cracks a joke at the expense of the band. Tracy Chapman laughing? It's a strange sight, but maybe one we're going to have to get used to.