Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#MIF11: Sinead O'Connor

As we filed out of the venue in Albert Square, I was walking closely behind a white-haired rather posh sounding gentleman. "The music was smashing," he remarked to his companion. "But of course, she's a complete crackpot."

This nicely sums up what most people think of Sinead O' Connor. (If they think of her at all, and judging by the blank expressions on the twentysomethings round my pavilion table when I announced I was off to see Sinead, they increasingly don't.) Nice songs, but completely Dagenham. She tore up a picture of the pope on telly, for chrissakes. In the 80s she was a beautiful young woman with a stunning voice, but she shaved her head and wore shapeless clothes and made a habit of saying angry things that made people uncomfortable. Then she went all religious and wanted to sing a lot of songs based on scripture, didn't she? The record industry loves it when you do that.

This was all in the background when I went to see Sinead O'Connor last weekend. The woman who took the stage was simply dressed and seemed nervous. There was a strange dynamic between her and her backing band which became clear when she told us she'd only met them the week before. There was a white cotton banner embroidered in rasta colours with the word "Joseph" draped from her music stand, and a piece of paper facing her instructed her to BREATHE. She periodically jumped into kind of a nervous boxer bounce.

Her set was a nice combination of new and old. I'd heard she didn't perform old songs any more, but The Emperor's New Clothes was one of the first she played, followed by many of her old hits. Her acappella version of I am stretched on your grave raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Beautiful, unearthly and harrowing. For me, that alone would have been worth the price of admission.

But her newer songs, most of which I had never heard, were lovely; her voice is lower than it used to be but just as magnificent, and her songwriting skills are still very much in effect. I'm not a religious person, but I found her songs from the Theology album touching, and wondered why sacred music is so little tolerated in the world of rock and roll, where ironic detatchment often seems to be the default setting. Songs from her forthcoming album, Home, also went down well, as did a reggae cover of Buju Banton's Untold Stories. The only place where she lost me a bit was a long sermonizing number called What is a real VIP?, which could have done with some editing.

She has a salty sense of humor, which was increasingly in evidence as the show went on, and curses like a sailor. I found this mostly funny, even later on when she had a nerve-induced attack of turrets - yes, she's rough around the edges, but she seems like a real person, a far cry from the standard plastic persona of the musician on display. On the strength of this performance, I'll certainly be giving her new music a listen.

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