When a performer is known as a singer-songwriter, the expectation is that when they perform, their singing and their songs will take precedence. That was not the case at Tracy Chapman’s Wiltern concert, where the scant moments of interest were provided by her backing musicians.
After more than a decade of writing socially aware folk pop, Chapman turns her gaze inward on her new album “Let It Rain” (Elektra), with less than successful results. She either can’t or won’t dig below the surface, so even the most confessional lyrics are frustratingly nonspecific. While probably intended to be universal, the approach results in cliches –songs where buckets are kicked, men “play with fire,” and the rain will wash her away. Only the pared-down production by John Parish (best known for his work with PJ Harvey) provides surprises.
While the live sound is somewhat more conventional, it is drummer Butch (taking time off from the Eels) and guitarist Joe Gore (Tom Waits, PJ Harvey) who keep the show interesting.
With Butch behind the kit, the music has a strong rhythmic backbone, while the bald-pated Gore is mostly called on to provide washes of sound and the occasional fillip. But when he steps out — for example, in his lap steel solo on “You’re the One” — he infuses the music with a gritty intelligence. He also incites the evening’s most exciting moment: the galloping blues coda to “Give Me One Reason.”
Chapman responds to their work with some of her best, and most engaged, singing in ages. But her limitations are exposed in the encore. She is overshadowed by opening act Eastmountainsouth on Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and her take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is one-dimensional, conveying the song’s hope but utterly lacking in the barely submerged frustration that gives the song its power.
Chapman and Eastmountainsouth play New York’s Beacon Theater July 15.