religious music

Last night I went to see Sinead O’Connor sing at Lincoln Center; she’s best known  for her 1990 hit cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U” and ripping the Pope’s headshot on SNL. She was asked to return to Alice Tully Hall this month after a successful performance at last year’s tribute to Curtis Mayfield. This year she chose to sing from the (early, black) Gospel soundbook, mostly songs famously covered by the great Soul Stirrers, Rosetta Tharpe, and the Staple Singers. With a few exceptions, the concert was a disappointing, uncomfortable, mess.

It’s important to start by saying that O’Connor’s voice is still astonishingly good, especially when she’s in her pocket, in a low register, almost whispering. She’s still got a powerful high yawl, and it’s amazing to see a pop singer hold on to her voice over almost 3 decades of performing. Whatever else she’s done to herself over those years, she’s protected her voice. And last night she chose to sing beautiful songs, songs that are important to our country’s musical heritage and often overlooked by secular pop fans. The roots of contemporary pop and R&B music lie here, and they are wonderful.

But what strengths O’Connor has in her range and song selection, she faces substantial challenges in putting on an enjoyable–even tolerable–live show. First, and perhaps because she hinted that the concert’s program came together at the last minute, she failed to arrange these songs to suit her voice. Almost all of these songs are transcendent, beautiful music because they take advantage of an able singer’s ability to use their broad range and soulful, complex voice to communicate strength, hope, and pain. Arranged correctly, with a minimal reliance on Sinead’s broad yalp, she could do this as well as any singer of her generation. But she played them straight, faithful to the arrangements used by great soul singers, and anyone who knows the originals would wish for a proper gospel group to kick her off the stage and do these songs justice. Because O’Connor was miked, and she sang almost all of the first half hour in a near scream, my ears were blown out by the time she shifted into the stripped down songs that constituted the second half of the show. It was relentlessly unpleasant.

Adding insult to injury, she has the irritating and wholly unnecessary habit of moving the mic to control the intensity of her voice into the PA, and the equally irritating habit of providing direction to the sound engineer during each and every song, sometimes for minutes at a time, both before, during, and after her songs. We spent as much time watching her turn up and down her earpiece, signalling to stage right that the monitor needed to be louder, or asking for a new guitar, as we did watching her sing. As my friends in Nashville were fond of saying, “if you’re correcting the sound engineer more than twice, the problem is probably with you.” I think this is especially true at a venue like Lincoln Center, where people generally can be trusted to do their jobs well. Truth be told, the experience would have been wonderful without microphones–the room is smartly designed, on the small side, and both she and the band had enough power to get it done. And the minimalist approach would have suited the occasion.

The final straw is that she sang almost the entire show off-pitch. The audience didn’t seem to notice (or mind) but even a blind woman would have figured it out after the totally awesome Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir joined her on stage. As soon they started to sing O’Connor would bend her note to match theirs until she was singing on-key. Her dependence on them was so total that she actually drifted across the stage to hear them better, bringing her too close to their monitor, sending a shock of feedback through the PA. Twice.

Her banter was just as odd as you’d expect: she told what she described as a “funny story” about being abused as a child and finding refuge in an image of herself coated in a river of Jesus’s blood. She dedicated songs to “everyone,” and to “all the women who are pregnant,” which really leeches the sentiment out of such tributes. While a friend took exception to her priest’s collar (“that’s so old”), I noted my displeasure with her choice to wear Yoga pants more because I’m sick of yoga pants than my desire to police her appearance.

There were a few high points. “Wade in the Water” was good fun, and she did a lovely stripped down version of Mayfield’s “Jesus.” In her encore, she played two songs from her widely-liked recent album, and closed with an a capella prayer she claimed to have learned from some Irish monks. The band was tight, smart, and generous to her; it included members of The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Soul Stirrers and Bob Telson (Oscar and Tony nominated composer, on piano)  was the musical director. She seemed genuinely happy to be on stage and I was in the minority of unhappy customers. Then again, people are smart; audiences are stupid.


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One response to “religious music

  1. Jenn Lena

    I’ll toot my own horn: the Times review (of the allegedly better Friday night) is exactly the same as mine, save for Ratliff’s journalistic tone and helpful inclusion of details like the song list.

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