Photography by Maja Smiejkowska
The sudden shock of Robin Williams’ reported suicide touched so many people, no doubt including many of those gathered at London’s iconic Roundhouse Tuesday night to see Sinéad O’Connor. So, it was no great surprise that the singer’s first act was to dedicate her set to Williams before going on to pay tribute to him later in the evening through two additional songs. It would have been understandable if those pronouncements had hung heavily in the air, but O’Connor and her five-piece band ensured it was a wake that Williams himself might well have appreciated in his Good Morning, Vietnam persona. In short, O’Connor rocked the joint.
The Irish singer cut a slight figure: shaven-headed, barefoot, and dressed in skinny jeans topped by a black vest emblazoned with the Lion of Judah. Her muscular biceps were a little at odds with the rest of her slim frame while heavily tattooed arms and chest cut a battle-wearied note. To complement O’Connor’s dress-down evening, her band members were similarly clad in simple clothing. Maybe someone didn’t tell rhythm guitarist Brooke Supple who came as the Bad Fairy, although sartorially-aware fans I’m sure appreciated the touch of gothic glamour she added. Supple, along with Clare Kenny on bass, added plenty of pleasing harmonies throughout the show. Later, both women were heard to particularly fine effect alongside O’Connor on “In This Heart” — a flawless performance humanized by their collective giggle at the ever so slightly muffed ending.
O’Connor actually opened the show with John Grant’s powerful confessional “Queen of Denmark” and did searing justice to both the emotion and underpinned humour of this magnificent song. It was such a strong opener that O’Connor’s bare shuffle “4th and Vine” that followed lost a little impetus, which the singer immediately righted with “Take Me to Church” from her newly released album. We missed the latex dress and hairpiece from the video, but the passion of her delivery still ruled. It was just a shame that the song wasn’t extended live – it seems foreshortened on record and a trick was missed, especially as the very able lead guitarist looked like he could really cut loose given half a chance and pertinently more volume.
The next mention for Robin Williams preceded an extraordinary a cappella rendition of Philip King’s arrangement of the traditional song “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” followed by O’Connor’s own “8 Good Reasons”. The former brought a stunned quiet to the venue, showcasing O’Connor’s extraordinary vocal control aided by her truly adept microphone technique. The second coincidentally deals with O’Connor’s own reflections on suicide and the eight good reasons (her children’s eyes) that prevented those thoughts from solidifying. Introducing the song, she softly declared, “It was a very bad idea, the choice that Robin made, and I want to dedicate this song to anyone today who may be contemplating that choice and ask them not to.”
Following on from this, a celebratory “The Wolf Is Getting Married”, so titled as it cites an Arab expression for a break in the clouds that O’Connor heard from a taxi driver (“The wolf smiles as he’s on his way to his wedding”), was pure catharsis. A feature of the evening was the way O’Connor mixed up moods by presenting upbeat pop followed by the slow fuse of intense blues, as in “Harbour”. The inevitable but hugely welcomed “Nothing Compares to U” was next given a very faithful treatment lit up by swirling keyboard and eloquent guitar and, of course, O’Connor’s unique vocal. There were times that the sound seemed muddy and individual instruments lost definition, but this wasn’t one of them.
Stomping in her bare feet, O’Connor hit a home run with a succession of genuine crowd-pleasers, with an anthemic “Thank You for Hearing Me” and storming “The Last Day of our Acquaintance” standing out. Returning for encores, the songstress was greeted by a T-shirt (black of course) inscribed Gaza, thrown onstage by a fan. She duly stripped down to her bra to don it, adding wryly that “I always wanted to do a costume change!” It wasn’t the only show of solidarity with the beleaguered civilians; people may have spotted that O’Connor took the stage with the same word written on both cheeks. After a short but heavy “Kisses Like Mine”, the closing track from I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, “Streetcars” followed with just keyboard man Graham Henderson left to accompany the singer’s die-away, whispered delivery. That microphone style where she turns her face to the side was never seen to greater effect.
The final act was left to an unaccompanied O’Connor to deliver a short hymn she claimed to have learned from less than celibate Irish monks. It made for a fitting benediction from a revered and remarkable performer.
Queen of Denmark
4th and Vine
Take Me to Church
No Man’s Woman
I Had a Baby
I am Stretched on Your Grave
8 Good Reasons
The Wolf Is Getting Married
In This Heart
Nothing Compares 2 U
Thank You for Hearing Me
The Voice of My Doctor
The Emperor’s New Clothes
The Last Day of Our Acquaintance
Kisses Like Mine
Before We End Our Day