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Better Than: Being at basically any other wine bar
Right at the beginning of her show last night at City Winery, Sinead O’Connor explained that she’d be wearing sunglasses for the entirety of the performance. “I really am quite shy,” she said, to laughter, although it was obvious that on some level she wasn’t at all joking. “If I wear these, it’s like you’re not looking at me.”
See also: Miley Cyrus Redeems Herself on SNL
At the turn of the century, O’Connor had mostly faded into a dignified obscurity. She was releasing records consistently and continuing to tour, but at level of relatively lower visibility than she had during her “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Pope-picture-ripping tenure at the top of the worldwide pop pantheon in the early 1990s. She seemed to be fine with this. There was something respectable about it.
Perhaps because of this relatively constant level of semi-fame, she felt comfortable enough in 2011 to publish a blog post sub-titled, “IS SINEAD ABOUT TO HUMP HER TRUCK?” about how lonely she was, how much she wanted to have sex, and that she does definitely do anal. Prurient, funny, confusing, relatable, repelling, sad, and honestly a little arousing, it was the kind of thing that couldn’t help but go viral once someone discovered it. It led to an endless series of articles on places like The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail, making O’Connor into a tabloid celebrity all over again. She has spent the intervening two years adding new wrinkles to the story–appearing overweight and with a bad haircut, then slimming down and shaving her head, finding and marrying a man, then getting divorced after a little more than two weeks. Most recently, she wrote an increasingly unhinged series of open letters to Miley Cyrus.
Watching her last night, it was hard to see why she bothered with all that nonsense. With many legacy acts–bands that were more popular in the past than they are now–the general worry is that this old person on stage will forever taint for you the music made by their younger self. If you saw Madonna last year (many did; it made $228 million and was the year’s highest-grossing tour), you may forever think of a sweaty millionaire in her mid-fifties incongruously dressed up like a cheerleader when you hear “Lucky Star” or “Material Girl.” In general, this is bad.
This isn’t the case with O’Connor. Her voice, in many ways the main attraction, remains shockingly clear and affecting, especially when it strains at the top of its register and cracks with emotion. I know it’s entirely chronologically fucked for me to say that it reminds me of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, but that was the Irish female singer I have youthful affection for, and hearing her last night stirred in me all the memories of being young, watching the moody black-and-white video for “Linger” on VH1, and being hopelessly in love.
Unavoidably, O’Connor’s most famous song, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” is the thing most everyone in the audience was waiting for. She made the brave and curious decision to sing it about 20 minutes into an oddly-sized 80-minute set. The crowd went crazy, which at City Winery meant that a woman in her late forties in a smart jacket and a sort of brass chainmail necklace began screaming so loudly that her friend was eventually forced to shush her. Watching O’Connor sing that song, something she must have done tens if not hundreds of thousands of times, it was remarkable how much she seemed to still enjoy performing it. She waved her hands in the air, twisted her face in a mask of emotion, and threw out the earpiece that had been giving her trouble all night.
The song’s video, an unbroken shot of her face as she sings and eventually begins to cry, is one of the reasons anyone is coming to see her perform this many years later. It is extremely intimate. O’Connor stares straight into the camera, and, therefore, straight at you. Last night, she never took off her sunglasses. This seemed to reflect the lessons she tried to put in her first, and most reasonable letter to Cyrus from earlier this year. You don’t need to give so much of yourself to be a compelling performer. You can keep your sunglasses on, if you want to. We’re all still fascinated.
Maybe, come to think of it, this is the reason for all of O’Connor’s tabloid bullshit. She’s every bit as talented as she ever was. She knows better how to handle being a famous musician. But no one was paying attention. If all it takes to turn that around is typing on your blog that you “have a hot date with a banana,” well, maybe it’s worth a shot? For what it’s worth, every City Winery show over the weekend was sold out.
Critical Bias: I went into this show ready to be bored, honestly. Ready to be uncomfortable. But it was actually really impressive, musically, and nice, personally.
Overheard: The guys next to me, friends in their late forties in well-fitting v-neck sweaters, spent the 20 minutes before the concert talking about selling houses and their relationship with their mothers.
Random Notebook Dump: City Winery is a strange place that combines the eager-to-please freneticism of a nice restaurant and the nervous energy of a room full of people who’ve paid a lot of money to see a concert (tickets ran from $135 for “VIP,” which appeared to just mean a table near the front, to $115 for a barstool). A phalanx of hosts and hostesses with iPads politely block your access once you get inside the front door, find your name in an interactive diagram of the dining room, and summon a waiter clad all in black who ushers you to your seat, which will likely be at a nice dinner table that you’ll share with at least one other couple. This gives the whole show an almost dinner-theatery vibe.