Sinead O’Connor – St Johns Church Hackney

So last night I went to see noted Irish Rastafarian Sinead O’Connor live in St John’s Church in Hackney –

It was part of a week-long series of concerts in the church for the charity Mencap, curated by radio DJ Jo Whiley.

Sinead O’Connor I find to be a bit of an oddity in terms of her place in the pop music landscape. By all rights she should be pitched vaguely somewhere in the same realm as a less-prolific Irish PJ Harvey, whilst some of her later material has been patchy, at least 3 of her early studio albums (namely “The Lion and The Cobra”, “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got” and “Universal Mother”) should have secured her some sort of musical legend status. Yet in many ways, despite the strength of (some) of her material, Sinead seems to be viewed more as a one-hit-wonder in the eyes of many, and drifting in the realm of eccentric joke in the eyes of others.

I find this unfair because, as I previously stated, I find her first 3 full studio albums (discounting covers album that ended her commercial peak rather swiftly “Am I Not Your Girl?”) to be 3 incredibly strong pieces of work, particularly her debut “The Lion And The Cobra” which seems to be by-and-large forgotten by the general population (of the world). Listening to “The Lion And The Cobra” back now, in many ways it is an album that would fit right in with the grunge revival that burst back into fashion over the last few years (and obviously inspired recent albums from Yuck and The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart), the lighter side of grunge at least. Its dark, angry, bass-heavy with a good amount of guitar –

and it also came from the same ballpark time-period, yet it is rarely ever mentioned these days, perhaps because the person singing it is the slightly tainted Sinead O’Connor. WHO KNOWS. ANYWAY this post wasn’t a retrospective on her first album, it was about her gig.

I was rather apprehensive as to what to expect, having never seen Sinead live before, and having heard various accounts over the years as to what she was like as a performer these days – Rumours that she only played reggae music these days, that she had grown dreadlocks, that she would play “Rivers Of Babylon” by Boney M, that she refuses to play a lot of her old material…I would see none of these points as a negative aside from the final one (I well wanted me some “The Lion And The Cobra”), but at the same time I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get, nor what I was to expect.

Having seen photos similar to this in the tabloid press over the past few years –

I am pleased to announce that Sinead has now gone back to her trademark shaved-head look (and looks all the better for it), and that she doesn’t seem to have lost her wild side, coming out in a leather bustier, and skinny leather trousers, with her upper body covered in tattoos.

As for the show itself, Sinead’s voice is still absolutely show-stoppingly sublime. I wasn’t sure whether she would still have a voice or not to be honest, considering at her peak she had one of the most unique (and beautiful) voices in pop, but my doubts were pretty much hushed on account of the first track she performed pretty much silencing the crowd (who I imagine may have been wondering the same as me, whether she was still any good live) with Sinead sounding vocally amazing.

The gig itself was a lot of fun. Sinead O’Connor live in a church, an interesting place to see her perform considering a huge amount of her lyrics revolve around religion. Her setlist was slightly erratic and unusual, mainly pulling from her biggest success “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” for her older material with “The Emperors New Clothes”, “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance”, “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and “Nothing Compares 2U” all performed and (very) happily lapped up by the crowd. A slightly random curveball of “Universal Mother” oddity “Red Football” that was quite funny to watch performed live (the track starts off with about 2 slightly nonsensical minutes of lyrics revolving around not being a football and zoos, to finish with 30 seconds of Sinead shouting LALALALA whilst the music around her grows faster) and several new tracks from her forthcoming album due in February 2012, that appeared to see Sinead return to her pop/rock roots for the first time in about a decade.

As I mentioned the “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” material was best received by the crowd – perhaps Sinead should consider touring the album as a whole, similar to what The Human League did recently with “Dare”, at some point. However her performance of “Nothing Compares 2U” was one of the odder moments of an already slightly odd evening. Obviously the track a lot of people would pay to see Sinead perform live – and probably for a huge majority of people the thing they remember her most (aside from her shaved head and the SNL incident). Sinead can’t really get away with not playing it these days, and perform it she did. Oddly though, despite Sinead performing it entirely straight-faced, it seemed to become the unintentional comedy section of her act, with heckling from the crowd, drunken women singing along really loudly deliberately out-of-tune, and Sinead making sarky asides throughout. It was interesting to see how people (and Sinead fans) react to a song that was a huge propellant, and also an albatross to her career.

Sinead also sang a very powerful acapella version of “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, that despite being very beautiful did feel a little bit auto-pilot, I got the impression that she had performed the exact same performance many times before (and a quick google of recent Sinead set-lists confirms an acapella IASOYG is indeed a live show staple), like I say however, it was gorgeous and you could pretty much hear a pin drop throughout whenever she was singing.

Of her new material off her forthcoming album, it seemed very split into the firmly “sounds quite good” and “this is really awful” camps. One track (I think named “The Wolf Is Getting Married”) sounded great, with a huge thumping rousing chorus and layered vocals – it didn’t sound a million miles away from her early material, and another (I think called “Old Bird”) was similarly rousing and the sort of thing you imagine Sinead probably should be making at the moment.

However two of the other new tracks were pretty awful truth be told. One was a ballad style track very much in the vein of  “Nothing Compares 2U” (the backing basically sounded like a “Nothing Compares 2U” re-write) and containing some truly heinous lyrics, one of which I remember being “Granny I’m so sorry, I sold your rosary for 15p”, not your best work Sinead. The other track was a truly cringeworthy rant against celebrity (I think called “VIP”), that was basically a very badly written 7 minute Sinead monologue speaking out against celebrity culture and the aspirations of youth. If it was Sinead trying to be current, it failed miserably and was a bit embarrassing truth be told (she got heckled by the crowd towards the end of the track).

But why should we care about new Sinead O’Connor material I don’t hear you cry, you should care because as her first proper pop album in about 15 years, it has the potential to be really interesting, as I mentioned earlier, when she was great, she was REALLY great. The woman can be a genius when she wants to be –

Sadly I don’t think I got anything off my beloved “The Lion and The Cobra” (I would have loved a bit of the above “Troy”, or “Just Like U Said It Would B”), but despite my reservations about a couple of her new tracks, it really was a really fun gig. Sinead is in fine voice, and played a very entertaining set regardless of whether you knew the material or not. She was oddly quiet throughout (leading me to think she might have been quite drunk), only for her to announce to the crowd at the end that she is deliberately quiet during gigs these days, as if she speaks she says things that get her into trouble, and she finds it better to say nothing at all – which cleaned up that little mystery very nicely.

It was pretty awesome to see one of my quiet heroes in such an intimate setting. Sinead O’Connor is a definite pop music curio, and probably will remain one until the day she dies, but shes pretty awesome and incredibly talented too.

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