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Sinead O'Connor's "The Gospel Sessions" At Alice Tulley Hall, Friday, July 26th, 2013, Reviewed

she’s a believer
















As Sinead O’Connor controversy goes, this was a minor admonishment. At Alice Tulley on Friday night, Sam Butler Jr (of the Blind Boys Of Alabama) and Sinead are singing Curtis Mayfield’s 1975 “Jesus” together acoustic guitars on their laps, sitting so close they are almost touching, as Sinead traverses this difficult, strange song of faith. “You need courage in time of fear, because of undyin’ news you hear, talking about Jesus”, they sing, but at some point Sinead switches Jesus for Curtis and Sam isn’t amused, he sings over her and admonishes her with a look, and they go back and forth until Sinead returns to Jesus.

It is a sweet moment and the two hug at the end of the song. This is more than apt because last year Sinead sang at the Curtis Mayfield tribute which is where Lincoln Center came to her with the concept of an evening of Gospel music and Sinead jumped at the opportunity. The result was this, the first of two nights of Gospel, a part of Lincoln Center’s Summer Festival.

The Irish Catholic singer has loved religious music all her life but even that early love changed in 1979 when at the age of 11 she heard Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. In 1992, two weeks after she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, she attempted to sing “I Believe In You” at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute at Madison Square Garden, and got booed off stage, Thursday she was cheered loudly with a perfect rendition.

And a little later, she spoke of being a child in kindergarten and winning an award for curling into the tiniest ball. Sinead was good at this because she used to do it when her father beat her and she would close her eyes and imagine Jesus on the cross, His blood dropping into her heart, she told the story by way of explaining her love for the Soulstirrers “Praying Ground”.

Obviously, this was not just another Sinead O’Connor concert. Sinead called it the most important musical experience of her life and the woman gave herself completely to the experience. Backed by an electric soul band and later, by the Inspiration Voices Of The Abyssinian Baptist Church, Sinead sang a Gospel that maneuvered between Curtis, Sam, Dylan, Fred Hammond Jr, and others. It was, in a way, modern Gospel. Ray Charles wasn’t referenced but he was like a guiding light, and you could hear him somewhere in the background.

Sinead has Faith with a capital F, she told the Daily News earlier this week ““Religion and God are two different things. God needs to be rescued from religion.” And at the heart of her wonderful and deeply felt interpretations of 70 minutes of Songs Of Faith lay that line somewhere between Jesus and the Church. This world, this argument, is something my sister Feriel has dealt with for many years. My sister actually left the Church on several occasions because of this, and Sinead, singing these songs surrounded six men all of whom have played Gospel their entire lifes,  all seeped deep into Gospel music, attempted to replay the soul as sound.

For 70 minutes went about as deep as you possibly can into Gospel. The songs were delicate somewhats, shook other times, on Dylan’s “Property Of Jesus” she raised her voice in praise and admonishment, the song always stuck it to you but when Sinead gets upset it is something to hear: “You’ve got something better”, she sang, “You’ve got a heart of stone”. It was as good a finger waggling exposition, as clear an understanding of Dylan’s feelings, his disdain for disbelief.

Sinead kept putting her sunglasses on and off, so shy she didn’t want to see the audience. If she had seen them she would an seen an auditorium transfixed, and very very moved. “Draw Me Nearer”, “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me”, “Born Again” and if you follow Gospel, you would hear how her tender and tough Irish brogue informed Gospel at its root and made she hear it again. If you have ever heard Fred Hammond sing “Jesus Be  A Fence Around Me”, what you would hear would be the hard seller of Christ pounding you into mush: wonderful (he wrote it) but not what Sinead is after. Sinead has a voice that can keep you listening without pushing you to the wall, it is so beautiful it takes you back a little, you sort of gasp when you hear her. On “Fence” she plays with the volume, loud, soft, a word, a line, and back, interacting with the band and back up vocalist Gene Stewart.

For the five songs performed with the  Inspiration Voices Of The Abyssinian Baptist Church, sometimes she used them like another voice in a conversation, sometimes she raises her voice with them, and other times they are used so subtly, it is as though they are there to underscore, a word or a thought or a deed.

This is how Sinead is both a beautiful singer and a wonderful interpreter, whereas she isn’t going so far off the beaten track that even I neophyte like myself doesn’t recognize some of the songs, still her version of “Amazing Grace” is a livelier and more exciting one then the version that is usually played and plus, hearing her voice makes everything sound fresh and new, and also a renewal of faith. At the root of Sinead’s performance was the willingness to testify.

The 70 minute set was perfect but the encore, three songs with just Sinead and her guitar, off her Old Testament influenced Theology album, was completely uncalled and a terrible idea. The change in tone was jarring and the songs were just not where we needed them to be. They couldn’t compare with the the Gospel Session.

With any luck, Sinead will release this performance (she also played Saturday night), it is certainly good enough to exist as an album.

Grade: A



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