Review: Sinead O'Connor preaches powerfully at City Winery

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Twenty-six years after her debut album’s release, Sinead O’Connor already has shown that she retains her knack for generating headlines, but, more important, Monday night at City Winery she demonstrated that she can still sing the holy hell out of songs — accents on both “holy” and “hell.”

The 46-year-old Irish singer with a shaved head was a mad prophet in sunglasses (she apologetically blamed shyness as she put them on) and a long-sleeve, floor-length maroon Victorian dress — no skin show here, Miley Cyrus fans. Not that the “Wrecking Ball” singer — with whom O’Connor publicly sparred when the older singer’s motherly advice about avoiding objectification was met with derisive tweets seemingly poking fun at O’Connor’s bouts with mental illness — was mentioned in this first of three City Winery shows. Frankly, if Cyrus had set foot in this room, she would’ve been blasted into another zip code by O’Connor’s sheer force.

Because while calculation and acting are integral to what Cyrus and most other current pop stars project, O’Connor gives the impression that her music is erupting from the depths of her being. Even as she was constantly repositioning the microphone and her body to vary her volume and tones — at one point she held the microphone at belly-button level and still could be heard over the crackling of her five-piece electric band — she didn’t appear to be crafting her delivery so much as channeling higher and lower powers that demanded to be heard.

“You really have no right to want anything from me at all!” she exploded during the opening “Queen of Denmark,” a song by American singer-songwriter John Grant that could have been written for O’Connor. (The song’s and concert’s first line: “I wanted to change the world/But I could not even change my underwear.”) On “Take Off Your Shoes,” O’Connor inhabited the Holy Spirit proclaiming its fury with the scandal-ridden church, the singer bouncing off the balls of her feet while declaring, “You’re running out of battery!”

Her head turning from side to side as if she were trying to shake off demons, O’Connor was preaching a singular form of gospel, angry one moment, tender and thankful the next, her voice quick-cutting from roar to hush. Her low-volume tones tended to come out as whispers, particularly on the a-cappella “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” which she dedicated to the late singer Lou Reed, “who was extraordinarily kind to me twice in my life.” City Winery, with its ever busy, wine-hawking servers, may never have been so quiet as between the phrases of that song.

She played the hits from her 1990 blockbuster “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” — “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which grew from a simple acoustic-guitar-and-piano arrangement, and a hard-charging “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which had O’Connor grinning when she spotted audience members pogoing off to the side — plus a ferocious “Jackie” from 1987’s “The Lion and the Cobra,” but this was no nostalgia trip.

O’Connor and her band transformed “Thank You for Hearing Me,” from 1994’s “Universal Mother,” into a kind of rave-up hymn, one that elicited a standing ovation at the end. But the bulk of the show came from 2012’s “How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?“, which feels like a natural follow-up to “I Do Not Want …” after her explorations of religious music, reggae and traditional tunes. These were songs raising the hairs on the backs of concertgoers’ necks: from the harrowing junkie’s pleas of “Reason with Me” to the raucous “The Wolf Is Getting Married” to the withering closing hymn “V.I.P.,” which says more about celebrity than any of her open letters to Cyrus.

She even finally lifted those sunglasses to reveal those oh-so-expressive eyes. She’d already exposed her soul.

Sinead O’Connor set list Monday

1. Queen of Denmark

2. 4th & Vine

3. Reason with Me

4. Jackie

5. Take Off Your Shoes

6. I Am Stretched on Your Grave

7. Nothing Compares 2 U

8. The Healing Room

9. The Wolf Is Getting Married

10. I Had a Baby

11. Thank You for Hearing Me

12. In This Heart

13. Fire on Babylon

14. The Emperor’s New Clothes

15. Property of Jesus (Bob Dylan cover)

16. The Last Day of Our Acquaintance

Encore

17. V.I.P.

18. 33

19. Daddy I’m Fine

 

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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