|photo by Kevin Abosch/courtesy sineadoconnor.com|
A version of my review originally appeared on the Soundcheck blog at ocregister.com.
When it comes to religion and politics, Sinead O’Connor has never shied away from speaking her mind or taking action wherever necessary.
After an acclaimed, platinum-selling 1990 disc (I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got), that brash attitude made the Dublin singer/songwriter a polarizing figure, but she influenced countless angry young female alt-rockers in the process.
Adopting a slightly lower profile career role during the 2000s, O’Connor put out traditional Irish, Jamaican reggae and spiritual-leaning albums on indie labels to mixed results, toured sporadically and worked on raising a family (four children, ranging in age from 5-24).
Despite a difficult period last year where O’Connor publicly searched for a mate (contrary to some reports, she’s still hitched to Barry Herridge) and battled health issues up until a month ago, the veteran artist finally seems to be back on track.
O’Connor can currently be heard on “Lay Your Head Down,” the Golden Globe-nominated ballad from Glenn Close film “Albert Nobbs.” Then there’s “Property of Jesus,” among the standout tracks off Chimes of Freedom, a multi-disc tribute collection to Bob Dylan.
How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, her first new studio album since 2007, came out today on One Little Indian Records. Produced by regular collaborator/drummer/ex-husband John Reynolds, it finds O’Connor back in fine form mixing vitriolic lyrics with some – gasp! – happy sentiments.
Amid a galvanizing El Rey Theatre performance on Monday that launched a quick run of Los Angeles and New York City shows, the singer looked and sounded better than ever. Boasting a mischievous streak and flashes of humor, O’Connor kicked off the 1 hour, 45-minute set in highly dramatic fashion with an eerie “Take Off Your Shoes.”
Inspired by an official 2009 Irish government enquiry into Catholic school child abuse and church cover-ups, the harrowing song found her defiantly intoning “I bleed the blood of Jesus over you” and “you’re on hallowed ground.”
Clad in tasteful all black attire and sporting glasses, O’Connor was admittedly nervous at first. A music stand with lyric sheets didn’t get used much. Though constantly dissatisfied with the in ear sound monitor, the vocals and six-piece band (especially journeyman guitarist Robbie McIntosh, known for successful stints with the Pretenders and Paul McCartney and more recently, John Mayer) came across well live.
The 21-song concert included eight selections from the new album. Fans who packed the venue were overjoyed to see O’Connor again after more than four years away. Some near the front of the stage gave flower bouquets; others loudly shouted out requests.
With one raised arm raised and singing in trademark head turning style, O’Connor nailed her old KROQ hit “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Quiet, airy keyboards gave way to cathartic primal wails on “Never Get Old” (written while she was a teenager). The pop-inflected “No Man’s Woman” was elevated by high-flying female harmonies from cellist Vanessa Smith and bassist Yolanda Charles.
Their vocal blend was equally strong on uplifting new single “The Wolf is Getting Married,” where O’Connor sang about a significant other’s smile, laugh and joyful disposition. If this isn’t a radio success, I don’t know what is.
Chiming, slow chugging rocker “Old Lady” (key line: “make me laugh like an idiot/not be so serious”), penned about Irish filmmaker/novelist Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game) and onetime O’Connor crush, was another highlight. Former Adam & the Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni had a hand in creating those two (he also featured on I Do Not Want).
The bleak, yet hopeful “Reason with Me,” driven by mournful piano, surrounds a junkie thief. O’Connor’s emotional delivery was riveting. When one sardonic lyric prompted a couple people to laugh, the singer said, “it’s not funny; kinda sad, actually” mid-song, without missing a beat.
She dedicated the compelling, a capella “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” to Whitney Houston and the El Rey was totally quiet. A running joke about not saying anything inappropriate was ended before the tender Celtic-leaning “Three Babies,” when O’Connor had to pull her pants up and made a remark about male anatomy. I loved Kieran Kelly’s flute work.
“Red Football” gave the group a chance to flaunt its chops on the fast tempo change. Meanwhile, the feisty accordion-led folk ballad “Petit Poulet” (off 1997’s Gospel Oak EP), was dedicated to Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina. Sprightly new folk tune “4th & Vine” provided the perfect segue and saw O’Connor dance a quick jig.
Reggae is a big part of O’Connor’s life and “The Lamb’s Book of Life” (from 2000’s Faith & Courage) included her fierce vocals. Accompanied by piano and cello, “Nothing Compares 2 U” remained stirring after all these years (O’Connor flubbed a phrasing and said so under her breath, mid-song). Closing out the main set was an exultant “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.”
For the encores, O’Connor covered an obscure reggae song on acoustic guitar, then did the haunting, whispered “VIP,” which takes Bono, Bob Geldof and others to task for indifference to religious wrongdoings.
Noisy bottles at the El Rey bar interrupted the hushed atmosphere and prompted a good-natured retort. O’Connor recalled Patti Smith on searing ominous rocker “Jackie” and did the chilling, profane version of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark” with intensity.
Next up for O'Connor are shows Thursday-Friday at the Highline Ballroom in New York City.