By Mark Guarino
As the concert hall was ornate, the singer dressed plainly. Balconies rose to the rafters but the singer didn’t see them, instead, she sang mostly to the stage floor. Sinead O’Connor is not like many singers of her generation and certainly none that followed since. Although she possesses a voice that can sound both prayerful and bellicose at the quick turn of her head, the singer has refused a career that, well, seems like a career. She releases albums on a self-made label and lets her interests dictate what happens next. The result is an erratic output of sublime music, ranging from traditional Irish songs to reggae covers to collections of original songs that carry the hard-earned weariness of ancient spirituals.
At the Symphony Center Sunday, O’Connor’s unpretentious approach to making music was on full display. The 90-minute show started with a whimper. She walked onstage barefoot and wearing just a dark T-shirt and jeans. On “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a defiant rock staple from her early days, O’Connor, now 40, directed the song’s hard-bitten lyrics mostly to the floor.
It wasn’t until the show picked up speed that her underwhelming stage manner became more of an asset. The 16-song set looked back over O’Connor’s 20-year career, predominantly focusing on the music that most people were introduced to her with in the early 1990’s and only touching on “Theology” (Koch), her recent double-CD of new songs. While her five-piece band — including her first husband John Reynolds, who played drums — adequately presented early, career-defining songs like “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “Thief of Your Heart,” they sounded somewhat frail, lacking the gripping intensity the material deserved.
Instead, the tension came from O’Connor herself. Because her voice can sound so powerful so suddenly she frequently has to sing turned away from the microphone, a difficulty, she pointed out, for her long-time sound engineer. Nevertheless, O’Connor grew into the show about halfway through during times it was evident she became lost inside the songs. Her wordless singing became just as articulate as if she sang words. Like the lyrics of songs like “Thank You For Hearing Me” and “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” where disillusion ends up being empowering, O’Connor sang in a voice weighed with sadness but not completely lost.
And who knew O’Connor had a comic side? She dedicated “River of Babylon” to Britney Spears and after finishing one of her heart-punishing songs she broke the tension, with a declaration: “Will Ferrell has to sleep with me after that.”
The show peaked when she stood playing acoustic guitar accompanied by two female singers. On the heartbreaking political ballad, “Black Boys On Mopeds,” she used a tool most singers neglect: silence. By taking beats before continuing, the song took shape and held its audience tight.