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Live review: Sinéad O'Connor at the El Rey

Sinead O'Connor at the El Rey
When Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor walked onto the stage of the El Rey Theatre on Monday for the first of two sold out shows, it was hard not to speculate on the concern that occupied many fans’ minds. The vocalist, 45, hair buzzed short as it was when she rose to become one of the world’s most popular -- and pilloried -- female vocalists of the 1990s, has been in the non-music news over the last year due to her very public search for a husband, a Las Vegas wedding gone awry, and her acknowledged struggles with bipolar disorder. 

As she made her way to the microphone, many were perhaps wondering whether she had endured some sort of breakdown, and if so, how it would manifest itself during the concert. There were probably even a few gawkers in attendance. But as the capacity crowd welcomed her with a collective cheer that seemed filled with compassion, O’Connor flashed a big smile and those dimples shined; her eyes lighted up, and a palpable sense of relief filled the El Rey. She’s OK. Now, can she still sing? 

Yes. Holy mother of God, yes. 

Over the next two hours, O’Connor tore through nearly two dozen songs that confirmed not merely that the only human to ever better Prince on one of his own songs was just fine, thank you, but also that whatever lows she had endured prior to landing on this stage were no match for the tremendous highs she remains able to achieve. 

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Touring on the back of her acclaimed new album, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?,” O’Connor seamlessly moved from new music to old and back again, and set the tone with the first line out of her mouth, from the new “Take Off Your Shoes.” “I bleed the blood of Jesus over you,” she sang as her fantastic six piece band -- guitar, bass, drum, cello, keyboard and multi-instrumentalist -- offered sturdy support. 

Were O’Connor still part of the major label machine and willing to play the game, this new album, released Tuesday, would have been accompanied by a huge marketing blitz announcing the singer’s “return to greatness” after a decade of pet projects. But O’Connor has defiantly refused to play that game, and as her mainstream star receded in the late 1990s, she traveled musical roads that led her to record, among other thematic releases, an album of reggae standards, an album on faith called “Theology,” and an album of traditional Irish songs, none of which made much of a commercial impact in America.

Describing herself a few songs in as “a bit terrified,” she assured her fans that her nerves would calm within 10 minutes. But she needn’t have worried. Other than repeatedly congratulating herself over the course of the night that she hadn’t said “anything inappropriate -- yet,” the power of her voice eclipsed the fear over and over again. After a few songs, O’Connor’s delivery was as strong and toned as at any time in her career, and the songs from her new record felt absolutely of a part with her classic work.

The highlight, one of many, was O’Connor’s breathtaking a cappella version of “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” which she dedicated to Whitney Houston. A heartbreakingly honest adaptation of the 17th century Irish poem that appeared on O’Connor’s breakout album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got,” O’Connor offered the lines with urgency and truth, and in doing so connected two voices that simultaneously ruled the airwaves in the '90s and offered thematically similar messages of personal empowerment. 

"When my family thinks that I'm safe and in bed/From night until morning I am stretched at your head," she sang, the venue as quiet as a graveyard, "Calling out to the air with tears hot and wild/My grief for the girl that I loved as a child." (She later dedicated "Petit Poulet" to Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.)

O'Connor hit peaks repeatedly, filled with spirit and with a voice as emotive as ever. In fact, her instrument sounded better, honestly. Where early in her career she had the throat and the power, in hindsight she perhaps lacked the conviction that comes with experience.

The evidence lay in her delivery of "Nothing Compares 2 U," the aforementioned Prince song that O'Connor owned both as a young woman and now in middle age. Filled with the grace to appreciate the words anew, O'Connor sang it -- as she's done thousands of times before -- but somehow still managed to deliver the words with a desperate loneliness that transcended time and space. 

As she described flowers in the backyard that died when her lover went away, O'Connor's voice eclipsed, if only for a few hours, the realities and struggles of the day-to-day. Yes, being a Sinead O'Connor fan is sometimes hard, but the eruption of applause after her profound concert rewarded everyone willing to give it another try. 

ALSO:

Album review: Karen Dalton's '1966'

Album Review: Sharon Van Etten's 'Tramp'

Sinead O'Connor returns with a new perspective

-- Randall Roberts

Photos: Sinéad O'Connor at the El Rey on Monday, Feb 20. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.

 
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