POP MUSIC REVIEW : Chapman Shines in All-Star Company

Times Pop Music Critic

It’s remarkable how a newcomer--even someone with the authority and craft of Tracy Chapman--can join the upper echelon in pop music so quickly and so convincingly.

On the national scene for only eight months, Chapman, 24, held her own this fall with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Sting before crowds of 50,000 or more on Amnesty International’s worldwide stadium tour.

Chapman, whose debut album has sold more than 6 million copies and seems likely to win her an armful of Grammys in February, proved equally at home with an even larger and more diverse group of pop stars at a benefit concert here Sunday.

Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Billy Idol, Nils Lofgren and the team of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young donated their services to raise funds for the Bridge School, an educational program for physically handicapped, non-speaking children that is actively supported by CSNY’s Neil Young and his wife Pegi.


But it was newcomer Chapman who contributed the most touching and revealing moments during the five-hour acoustic concert. And the timing couldn’t have been better.

Because of Chapman’s rapid rise and acclaim, there has been some second-guessing recently among critics and other industry observers. Perhaps she was given too much praise too soon. Will she be able to come up with new songs equal to the melodic lure and affecting commentary of “Fast Car,” the hit single from the debut album?

The Amnesty International dates didn’t provide an answer. Chapman stuck chiefly to material from the album on the tour because she was playing most of the cities for the first time.

But the folk-flavored artist--backed only by her own guitar--took advantage of the informal nature of Sunday’s show to preview some new material--and the result was impressive indeed.


“All That You Have Is Your Soul"--a statement of ideals and dreams--is as poignant an expression of advice and love as Dylan’s “Forever Young,” which Dylan had used to close his own set earlier in Sunday’s program.

In an evening where most of the other artists sang tunes from their pasts, it was especially endearing to see this shy, solitary figure on stage look to her future with such confidence and command.

She still doesn’t speak to the audience, but she sings with such intimacy and warmth that her presentation is far from cold. As with Dylan, her humanity and passion is expressed totally within her music.

If Chapman’s portion was the evening’s most tender, Billy Idol, someone else whose next album is being watched closely by the pop industry, was the liveliest.


After building a rebel-rocker stance that is so flamboyant it has made him a cartoon, Idol showed a more sensitive and, slightly, sophisticated side on his last album--perhaps a sign he wants to reach for a slightly older audience. When his name appeared on the Bridge School bill, it seemed like another step in that direction.

But Idol was still the rebel-rocker Sunday. He even seemed a bit uneasy with the evening’s polite, acoustic trappings. Not only was his version of “Sweet Sixteen” tougher than the version on his last album, but Idol--backed on his four songs by a drummer and second guitarist--had plenty to say between numbers.

He made it clear that he is still a rocker at heart: partying the night before in San Francisco and, on stage, wandering off into a expletive-ridden discourse on how Bo Diddley was rock’s greatest guitarist--greater, Idol said, than Little Richard (who, for the record, played piano), Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix.

Where Idol’s rowdy aggressiveness seemed to leave much of the audience confused, it provided a lively break in what was a sometimes overly predictable evening. However, Dylan, who followed Idol, is never predictable.


The heralded songwriter came on stage looking like a man on a mission. Dylan had been criticized during his recent Bay Area appearance for what was described by some fans as short and indifferent performances.

Backed by guitarist G. E. Smith, Dylan played with vigor and snap as he went through some cover tunes (including Woody Guthrie’s biting “Pretty Boy Floyd”) and some of his own early material, including an absorbing and revised “With God on Our Side.”

Without a word to the audience, Dylan left the stage after the scheduled half hour. He had played and sung with such energy and force that it seemed to take the nearly silent crowd a few seconds to catch its breath.

The audience then broke into an uproarious standing ovation, bringing him back for what was one of only two encores (the other was for CSNY, who closed the show).


Except for the spirited set by Petty and the Heartbreakers, the rest of the performances were fairly standard and polite. Still, the Bridge School benefit holds the promise of becoming one of the nation’s most valuable pop-rock forums.

That’s because the concert organizer, Neil Young, enjoys such respect within the rock community. (The Youngs have two sons with cerebral palsy, and were instrumental in launching the educational program.)

The first Bridge School benefit, in 1986, attracted such other major artists as Springteen and Don Henley, and now that Young has held a second, it may be time to reach out to invite artists from other fields--rather than having it merely a collection of friends and artists who share managers.

There is a need in pop and rock to have a showcase for artists to work together in informal and imaginative settings and this series may just be a bridge to that goal.