SAN FRANCISCO — Taking the stage in a blue hijab and burqa, Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor walked onto the August Hall stage with her band, said a quick hello and while applause was still ringing, she launched into her show on Friday with the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics of “Queen of Denmark,” a cover of a song by Denver musician John Grant.
As the song built to an explosive climax, O’Connor’s voice built to a roar, though her eyes remained downcast or shut, as they would for most of the show.
Sinead O’Connor has lived a public life, from her rise, her success with her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the way her career unravelled after she tore up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” in protest, to numerous mental health crises. In 2017, she posted a troubling video that had many afraid for her safety. Then the following year, she converted to Islam, taking the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat (she continues to make music and perform under her birth name).
But the way she delivered one line from the aforementioned song, with gusto, gave hope she’s found clarity: “You really have no right to want anything from me at all!” At the very least, it set the mood for a collection of songs from five of O’Connor’s albums that ranged wildly in emotion, from anger to sorrow, love, lust and even happiness.
O’Connor, who was barefoot, danced near the microphone on the upbeat “Take Me to Church,” from 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.
“I’ve done so many bad things,” she proclaimed in the unapologetic song.
The artist’s next song, “4th and Vine,” from 2012’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?, also name-check the house of God, this time about the excitement of getting married. A syncopated beat and gospel-like keyboard runs accented the last upbeat tune she played for a little bit. The next part of the set shifted the emotions, and pace.
“Reason With Me,” another 2012 cut, was slow and melancholic. “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” from the same album, was twangy, with more accentuated organs before ending in a high-pitched wail by O’Connor’s lead guitarist. The froantwoman, meanwhile dueted with her rhythm guitarist, the two women’s voices melding into a sweet melody.
A couple of songs later, the band left the stage, leaving O’Connor to sing “I Am Stretched on Your Grave,” from 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, a cappella. Stripped of the 1990s hip-hop beat and bass, the song had a folky funeral quality. It was the sort of song one might expect from a scene in “Gladiator” or “Braveheart.” You know, the scene where the tall grass billows in the wind. The type of thing Enya would make.
Eventually the guitarists returned to harmonize with O’Connor, who flubbed a line and provided comedic release when she kept going and turned the lyric into being about her flubbing the line. A moment pondered—out lot—whether to tell her favorite joke, before deciding against it and leaving fans to figure it out on their own.
“You are loved!” a woman yelled out during the break.
The simplistic acoustic guitar chords of obvious crowd favorite “Black Boys on Mopeds,” also from 1990, allowed people to take in the story being told in the song. The band followed that up with the ominous “Harbour,” which featured programmed beats (one of the few songs to include a more modern arrangement). “Thank You for Hearing Me,” from 1994’s Universal Mother, slowly built from a simple melody to a rapturous climax and outro, signaling another turning point in the show.
Many at the sold-out hall sang along to the chorus of “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” another 1990 cut, which led into a rocking “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and sensual “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Though Connor did not attempt to reach the high notes of the song, no one seemed to mind. Interestingly, it wasn’t the best performance of the night. Instead, it felt more like a payoff or victory lap. O’Connor left the stage after a little over an hour before returning with her band to play two more songs, the mournful “Milestones” and 2012 cut “Back Where You Belong,” after which she thanked the audience and walked off the stage again.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.