The queues for Sinéad O’Connor’s first London show in four years curled around the outside of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Inside and throughout her performance, voices in the crowd shouted their love for a singer whose voice is astounding, at a point in her career when her peers’ singing quality begins to betray age.
O’Connor walked onto the stage barefoot, all in black, a small figure supported by her band – an electric guitar and bass, acoustic guitar, drums, and keys. She began with three powerful songs, all marked by the humour and rage that characterise much of her output. The first, “Queen of Denmark”, began softly, with flashes of anger that were all the more effective because of their measured explosions. Her second, “Take Me To Church”, from her latest album I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss (2014), as with many of her songs, was undercut by wistfulness, a raw pain beneath euphoria. The culmination of this triptych, “4th and Vine”, was again inflected with humour, a reference to her pink dress and the hope of marriage. She skipped barefoot across the stage, whilst her guitarist played a solo.
Then came a tonal shift, a quieter beginning, and yet more sorrow offset by wry lyrics – “I sold your granny’s rosary for 50p” as a particularly memorable line in “Reason With You”. The guitar undercut O’Connor’s singing with a soft howl, a complement to the repeated lyric, “If I loved someone I might lose someone”.
The next two songs betrayed the only flaw in the whole performance, a slight tendency towards the mellow, ballady, overly smooth sound that such a classic instrumental set-up of practised musicians can produce. Then, in a brilliant switch, O’Connor was spotlit on stage, singing “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” with a clarity and grace that was deeply affecting. What was shown through the preceding songs was foregrounded here – the lasting brilliance of O’Connor’s voice. Then all instruments were stripped away, with just O’Connor singing “In This Heart”, then one of her band joining her in song, then another, in an affecting harmonisation.
With more than a nod to current politics, O’Connor introduced her next song with a soft “I think you’ll like this one”, launching into the resonant “Black Boys on Mopeds”. Reaching the climax of “please”, her voice became a keen, a frustrated plea.The songs moved forwards through O’Connor’s repertoire, to 2000’s “’Til I Whisper You Something”, then to 2014’s “Harbour”, before travelling backwards to 1994’s “Thank You For Loving Me”, then arriving at the popular shores of three songs from 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The culmination of these was her most popular, “Nothing Compares 2U”: again, she coped well with a technically difficult song, substituting some of the higher notes with breathy tones.One more song, then the encore, and into the powerful “Three Babies”, before she began her last, “Milestones’ (her newest, a teaser for her next album, No Mud No Lotus), without the microphone, then ended with just the keyboard for accompaniment. A haunting end to a brilliant show, whose only fault was the potential to sound, at times, just a little too rehearsed.