It only took one song to reassure the crowd at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre Sunday night that Sinead O’Connor’s voice remains a mighty instrument. By the end of her assured cover of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark” — a true marvel of a tune, marrying sincerity and snark, despair and defiance — the Irish singer-songwriter made it clear that the fire still burns in her vocal cords.
It was the first in a series of collective exhalations in the sold-out club over the course of her taut but heartfelt set, part of her first North American tour in over five years. To say the very least, the 53-year-old musician has navigated some rough waters in the last few years and there was a palpable sense of the entire room rooting her on, of longtime fans lending her a telepathic hand of goodwill. O’Connor more than delivered on the fervency of that hope with a 72-minute set that was neither tentative nor untethered, as she eschewed crowd banter — beyond repeated, effusive thanks — and sang her heart out.
Backed by a young and enthusiastic quintet, O’Connor took the stage barefoot, clad in a hijab and traditional Muslim attire — she converted to Islam in 2018 and took the name Shuhada Sadaqat while professionally retaining her given name. She explored almost the entire breadth of her catalog with a handful of tracks coming from her breakthrough sophomore album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, released 30 years ago next month. (An album that reached far and wide as evidenced by Lil Wayne shouting her out on his new album Funeral.)
Among those, the infuriatingly still relevant “Black Boys on Mopeds” — shot through with images of racism, poverty, and political corruption — stung hardest as O’Connor sang, “These are dangerous days, to say what you feel is to dig your own grave” over a gentle acoustic strum and an elegiac chorus of wordless backing vocals.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” remains a bracing romp, “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” a cathartic battle cry and the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U” a symphony of wailing and want, still heartrendingly familiar to anyone whose plumbed the depths of romantic anguish. If O’Connor has lost a bit of her fastball in terms of the highest notes, she hasn’t lost a single iota of her power. In fact, it felt as if she might’ve even been holding back a tiny bit for both for vocal conservation purposes and to lend a true sense of dynamics.
While she curiously omitted any songs from her incendiary 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra, she skipped around the rest of her repertoire offering a pair from 1994’s Universal Mother — including the mantra-like prayer of gratitude “Thank You For Hearing Me” — another pair from 2000’s Faith and Courage, and a trio of tunes from her dynamite 2012 release How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? including the giddy ode to marriage “4th and Vine” and aforementioned opener “Queen of Denmark.”
For all the talk of her vocal firepower, two of the night’s most moving moments were the quietest. First, an a cappella take of “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” reached a place of divinity and a similarly bare version of “In This Heart,” featuring chill-bump three part harmonies, brought a pin-drop quiet to the room.
At the set’s end, O’Connor flashed a bright smile and gave another round of thanks and was off. She may not have wanted to clutter up the night with talk, but the music did a fine job of letting her fans know how she’s doing.