Celtic crosses round her neck, white stole but no dreads, Sinéad O’Connor explains away her spiritual mix-and-match steez in convincing enough NPR rhetoric: Catholicism is her religion, Rasta is her movement. That “white girl flies to Kingston to do expensive reggae karaoke” bounce she worked at Webster—I would say that’s her movement. Still, can’t knock this way stellar backup band—Sly and Robbie, who produced O’Connor’s roots covers album Throw Down Your Arms, performed with her, as did Burning Spear, many of whose songs O’Connor took up that evening. And definitely can’t knock O’Connor’s scratchy-smooth alto, so powerful she often held the mic two feet from her mug and still outpiped most jokers invited onto Webster’s stage. For struggle music, she ain’t struggling.
O’Connor’s made something of a big deal of how she only does “spiritual” numbers these days. But her reggae cover choices had something else to them—they’re some of the genre’s most melody driven. That dense, impossibly busy groove of “Marcus Garvey” obeyed her pitch-perfect lead; those horn flourishes on “Y Mas Gan” and its feisty bassline never dared upstage her lullaby delivery. To the question “What does reggae sound like?” maybe now O’Connor’s gorgeous a cappella rendition of “Jah Nuh Dead,” patois intact, will suffice for an answer, at least as much as the upstroke guitar sound/hand motion most people make when pressed.
So O’Connor privileged melody over meter, reggae per se over what reggae “means.” More bluntly, her show was hardly the Damian Marley hotbox of the week before. “If you have a cigarette lighter, get it out!” O’Connor suggested before “Vampire,” a Lee Perry cover that defines the “true Rasta man,” and among other things, rhymes with “fire”; nobody had one. Though to be fair, when O’Connor snuck the Christian spiritual “Veni Emmanuel” into “Door Peep,” some girl in V.I.P. did grab the votive candle off her table and lift it into the air. Gaude, gaude.