Everything seemed to be going so well, from the vantage point of the audience. Yet Sinead O’Connor’s highly anticipated return to Western New York after more than 20 years concluded a mere hour after it had begun, with the singer in what appeared to be a highly distressed state.
O’Connor and her band arrived on the stage of the Riviera Theatre on Tuesday in seemingly good spirits, ion a tour the Irish singer and songwriter had optimistically dubbed “American Kindness,” in honor of a trait she felt her audiences in this country had displayed toward her for the 25 years since her debut.
But some 15 minutes into her show before a full house, everything started heading south for O’Connor. What began as the normal sort of to-and-fro between a singer and her soundmen and monitor mixers to achieve a satisfying balance, settled into a distracting series of semaphores and gesticulations from O’Connor, and finally, in a seriously truncated set cut short, because “my voice is well and truly (expletive),” O’Connor said.
The thing is, O’Connor’s voice sounded strong and agile from the get-go, her always impressive instrument nailing the broad range of notes that have long defined one of the most impressive singing voices extant. If her throat was bothering her Tuesday, it certainly didn’t seem to be affecting O’Connor’s ability to sing with power and grace.
O’Connor and her band strolled casually on stage just before 8:30 p.m. She smilingly addressed the crowd, explaining that she planned on wearing a pair of large black wraparound sunglasses out of shyness, and not as an indication of any sort of rock star attitude. Then she and the band launched into a soul-shaking interpretation of singer/songwriter John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark.”
The reggae-tinged and buoyant “4th and Vine” followed, and again, O’Connor was nailing the notes as her stellar band – drummer John Reynolds, bassist/vocalist Clare Kenny, guitarist/vocalist Brooke Supple, guitarist/vocalist Graham Kearns and keyboardist/vocalist Graham Henderson – eased into an eloquent interplay.
An early highlight came in the disarmingly intimate character sketch “Reason With Me,” during which O’Connor assumed the role of a heroin addict living in a state of denial and clinging to the illusion of control. Bleak stuff, yes, but in essence, this was a song dealing with the enduring capacity of hope and the indomitability of the human spirit against overwhelming odds. Again, O’Connor sang incredibly well, her resonant voice filling the welcoming acoustic space of the Riviera with dynamic self-assurance.
“Take Off Your Shoes,” one of the strongest songs on O’Connor’s newest album, “How About I Be Me (and You Be You),” found the singer being joined on the chorus by her bandmates for elegiac vocal harmonies. This was profoundly great, a full, rich sound that underscored the righteous conviction of the lyric, an open letter addressed to the Vatican seemingly from the vantage point of the Holy Spirit.
By the time O’Connor arrived at a beautifully understated take on the Prince song “Nothing Compares 2 U” she appeared to have become substantially distracted by the mix coming through her in-ear monitors. She spent most of the song peering toward the monitor mixer, gesturing wildly and peering around at her bandmates in what looked like a state of panic. She was visibly upset, although the sound mix in the front of the house remained pristine.
O’Connor regained enough control to launch the band into the hymnlike “Thank You For Hearing Me,” one of her most beautiful songs, which was delivered with conviction. Yet, as the tune concluded, O’Connor again appeared to be highly agitated, gesturing animatedly toward the monitor engineer and her bandmates. Her self-confidence seemed to evaporate, and the show would never regain its groove, despite the best efforts of O’Connor’s fellow musicians.
“The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” should have marked the three-quarter point in the show, based on published set lists the tour to date. Instead, they marked its conclusion. After telling the crowd that this would “absolutely be our last song,” O’Connor all but fled the stage, leaving her seemingly baffled bandmates to follow her.(“I was frightened last night... Really sick with fear to be honest,” O’Connor wrote of the Riviera Theatre show in a tour diary entry published Wednesday on her website.)
Despite its considerable high points, it is impossible to interpret Tuesday’s show as anything other than a disappointment.
There’s no way of knowing what was happening in O’Connor’s monitors, what the sound was like for the musicians on the stage, or what might have been going through the singer’s head. And yet, one wishes she would have found the strength to soldier on and give the audience the full show it was so clearly expecting.