Sinéad O’Connor had a show at the El Rey Theatre on Sunday night, and since she was bravely performing on Oscars night, at a time when the entire Los Angeles population should have been glued to their TV screen, I decided to snub the Academy Awards to check this legend whom I had never had the chance to see live.
My first vivid memory of Sinéad was that famous video of her shaved head eaten by her giant brown eyes singing with this incomparable voice, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, the Prince-penned song which made her a superstar. This clip still stirs up a heavy load of emotions when I watch it, while Sinéad’s life ends up being a long series of painful fights and dramas. In 1992, there was this iconic TV moment of Sinéad tearing the photo of the pope into pieces, but this was followed by a series of controversies, public meltdowns, and just plain weird tabloid episodes, from her fight with Prince to her heartbreaking Facebook video, her Dr. Phil appearance, and her beef with him, or her fight with Arsenio Hall after Prince’s death… her pain seemed to never end, and it was something difficult to ignore because everyone was genuinely worried about her at the time and because she was so open about it while posting these long cry-for-help video on her social media.
However, Sinéad surely didn’t want people to think about her past struggles with bipolar disorder and even suicide attempts last night, absolutely nothing in her performance showed the slightest trace of these troubled times. She was truly radiating, even smiling a lot, and was looking visibly happy to perform again.
Since the end of 2019, Sinéad has been touring again, and these February shows are the first US gigs in seven years. She was visibly having fun on stage, she welcomed us with a joyful ‘if you know any of the words of these songs, please sing along’ although the hijab that she was wearing reminded me she had followed her own very peculiar path since she showed up in public. She actually converted to Islam in October 2018, and changed her name to Magda Davitt,… Shuhada Sadaqat, while calling her conversion ‘the natural conclusion of any intelligent theologian’s journey.’
While the terrific musicians around her looked like a folk band of the ‘70s, her headscarf made her first look like a curious anachronism, but this didn’t last for very long, as soon as she started her set with a magnificent cover of John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’, a pure queer-rage song which doesn’t spare any cursing, she was in full Sinéad mode. Lines such as ‘I casually mention that I pissed in your coffee/I hope you know that all I want from you is sex’ were sung with so much conviction and intensity that I immediately understood that, whatever happened these past years, Sinéad was still very much true to her true nature
It’s certainly difficult to understand, but she probably doesn’t see any contradiction between her young version of herself fighting patriarchy and revolting against Catholic authorities, and this older version of herself now following the strict rules of another religion with a long list of restrictions against women. She is embracing a dogma which basically opposes everything she was standing for, but it seems to work for her? She came on stage barefoot with the sole intention to sing, and there was absolutely no talking or no stage rants between songs, just a few sincere ‘thank you’, and really nothing else but her appreciation of her public’s fervor and the warm response she was receiving at each one of her songs.
Her voice is still this spectacular show-stopper force of nature, carrying a myriad of emotions in just one single note. Last night, these amazing chords were intact, giving goosebumps to the audience which was loudly cheering up at Sinéad’s effortless vocal prowess. The songs were booming and propelling her voice during the uplifting ‘Take Me to Church’, and the more exotic ‘4th and Vine’ a fierce and fun bluesy boogie about rural nuptials. There was still this unique mix of rage and devastation in her delivery, illustrated by a wide range of songs. There were the politically-charged ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’ about an incident involving policemen pursuing a young black man riding a moped, which almost sounded like a Dylan ballad, and the transcendental ancient-hymn-like ‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’ that she chanted acapella, with her powerhouse resonating in the venue like a stunning instrument in an immense cathedral. It was immediately followed by ‘In This Heart’, another acapella number during which she harmonized to a Celtic perfection with two of her bandmates, guitarists Jackie Rainey and Phil Edgar.
Her voice soared in an incomparable triumph during ‘Harbour’ with the bluesy guitars of her bands backing her up with strength and bravado, while the ascending and throbbing power of ‘Thank You for Hearing Me’ resonated like a long prayer.
Sinéad was not against playing the most famous songs and even her biggest hit, and we got back to back ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and the highly-anticipated ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. All of them were a gut-wrenching display of emotions, an exercise in rawness and courage while Sinéad was showing great control of her voice or was even sketching some dance steps with her bare feet at several moments of the show.
She came back for an encore of two songs including a new one, ‘Milestones’ and it may not have been a coincidence if she ended the night with ‘Back Where You Belong’, a title which seemed to characterize the night, since, after a long absence, Sinéad was truly back where she belongs, on stage, while receiving several standing ovations from a ravished crowd.
Queen of Denmark (John Grant cover)
Take Me to Church
4th and Vine
Reason with Me
The Wolf Is Getting Married
I Am Stretched on Your Grave
In This Heart
Black Boys on Mopeds
Thank You for Hearing Me
The Last Day of Our Acquaintance
The Emperor’s New Clothes
Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince cover)
Hold Back the Night
Back Where You Belong
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