In “High Fidelity,” John Cusack’s character, Rob, falls for a singer when she gives Peter Frampton’s insubstantial “Baby I Love Your Way” poignancy and meaning. Tuesday at the Wiltern, Tracy Chapman performed a kind of reverse alchemy, turning everything she touched — even the Wailer’s blistering “Get Up, Stand Up” — into a tastefully bittersweet, vaguely uplifting ballad.
As she does on her new album, “Telling Stories” (Elektra), Chapman banished any sense of adventure or excitement from her music. Nearly every song was swaddled with flabby layers of Hammond organ, disembodied guitar and fiddle. Chapman’s voice, never the most emphatic instrument, faded into the mix, her rounded, whispery vocals barely registering any emotion. There’s no attack or tension and the music never kicks into gear, remaining at an unhurried mid-tempo for the entire two-hour set. The effect is thick but not rich — VH1 comfort food; a bowl of hot cereal that some might consider hearty oatmeal but others see as mighty thin gruel.
An impromptu cover of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” broke through the mush. Her low-key interpretation turned Muddy Waters’ craggy blues into a worksong, but it was preceded by a story so long and inane that even Chapman was jokingly forced to admit it was pointless. The only other time the music came to life was on an extended coda of “Give Me One Reason,” in which the band turned the beat around and fell into a groove and Chapman struck a note of engagement.
But they could not break the impression that on the “Telling Stories” tour Tracy Chapman has very little to say.