If we didn’t already think so, a recent mini-residency at Chicago’s City Winery has us proudly declaring Team Sinead. Sure, there has been much to do in the press recently of O’Connor’s heated letter exchange with Miley Cyrus over the musical Babylon the pop star is creating, but in all honestly, did Cyrus actually think O’Connor—or anyone—would keep mum when she began to compare her limp “Wrecking Ball” to the enduring love letter “Nothing Compares 2 U?”
After being on the receiving end of Cyrus’ vitriolic personal attacks, O’Connor quite coyly named this small jaunt the American Kindness Tour, perhaps advocating for the “shy” singer’s current state of mind as she hid behind sunglasses and later joked it would not be “ladylike” to tell the Irish jokes roving in her head. The messages in her songs, however, those were not so sweet, capitalizing on two-plus decades of poking at the fire of organized religion, war and human rights—all of which came to a head in her 90-minute performance that proved yes, you sure as hell can use your mouth and not your body to grab people’s attention.
“Can we celebrate today?” one audience member beckoned half-way into the show, informing the singer that, on this day, the state of Illinois passed legislation allowing for same sex marriage. “I have the perfect song,” O’Connor responded, and wrapped her arms around her two lovely backup singers, conjuring up a sweet southern harmony on an acapella version of “In This Heart.”
It was one of the many highlights in an evening that spanned her nine-album catalog with telescopic range, narrowing in on vintage classics like “Thank You for Hearing Me” and an acoustic lullaby rendition of her most famous hit “Nothing Compares 2 U,” while also giving a voice to earnest new affirmations from her latest album, 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?
O’Connor—head neatly shaved, barefoot and in a collar-to-toe Victorian dress—began the set with her new song “Queen of Denmark,” a soft number that starts off with self-depricating surface cuts (“I wanted to change the world but I couldn’t even change my underwear”) and quickly evolves into a ballsy, cymbal crashing anthem. She soon locks and loads, yelling at her protagonist to “take it out on someone else” and dares them to prepare for war: “Pack a lunch and get up early,” she advises before declaring “get on your knees and pray.” The song seemed metaphoric of O’Connor’s own comfortability in this intimate setting, quickly warming up to the crowd who all but pulled the tablecloth from under their fancy dinner plates and wine glasses to swing about their heads in some kind of Lord of the Flies tandem revolt.
Standing on a thrust stage with soft spotlights, O’Connor’s newest songs bore an even heavier cross of self reflection, caricaturing a deep thinker locked in her own prison, set free by exposing the secrets of her heart. “If I love someone, I might lose someone,” she morosely lamented on “Reason With Me,” after talking of the man she longs to marry on “4th and Vine” and the offspring she wasn’t supposed to have on the poignant “I Had a Baby.”
These personal vocalizations were a different spin for someone so always ready to attack anyone but herself, but as the den mother of confessional Irish singer-songwriters, O’Connor is not one to move from her glass house.
Influences beyond her homeland ran deep in the show, too, from the downtown electro jazz sounds of “Fire on Babylon” to the ‘90s Lilith stomp of “Jackie” and the chaste tribunal behind “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” all perfectly executed by a five-piece band who added flair but knew when to step away, as they did on her final song, “V.I.P.”
Starting with a dubbed tape that repeatedly declared “the righteous shall be bold like a lion,” O’Connor flowed into the track that tears down the walls of privilege and vanity: “Now we’re gorged upon what devils feed / In the shallow form of MTV / Telling the youth to worship futile dreams,” she admonished, no doubt with someone in mind, before gently smirking at the idea of “getting our pictures taken with the Pope.”