Reaction to Sinéad O’Connor’s new album, Throw Down Your Arms (reviewed here) has, pedictably, fallen into two camps. There are those who view her collection of “reggae” covers in the same light as they saw her album of “big band” covers or/and “traditional Gaelic” covers – further indication of a lost soul left clutching at straws. And there are those who know that she’s been recording roots/dub reggae since singing for Jah Wobble’s Invaders of The Heart back in 1991; who recall that it was Bob Marley’s song ‘War’ she played on Saturday Night Live prior to ripping up that picture of the Pope; and who understand how a spiritual seeker like O’Connor, long at odds with her roots in the Catholic Church, might end up embracing Rastafarianism – a movement that, at least as Sinéad sees it, favors a belief in God’s omnipresence over the rituals of religion.
Fortunately, it was the latter group of fans who bought enough $50 tickets to render Friday night’s show at Webster Hall in Manhattan a confirmed sell-out. And while it’s surely true that many among them would have paid to hear Sinéad sing the phone book, they proved the perfect audience for this, her first New York show in seven years – offering the kind of welcoming ovation normally reserved for opera stars, but then immediately falling into reverential silence as she settled into her set with an acoustic rendition of ‘Jah Nuh Dead.’
Better yet, they showed up in time to hear her backing band. Though the members were not introduced over the course of the night, all but the most ignorant of attendees understood that the group was rooted by reggae’s premier rhythm section, Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass. Along with a two-piece horn section (one of them doubling up on lead vocals), two keyboard players and two guitarists, they worked their way through their own set of classic reggae, including a version of ‘Armagideon Time’ that fell nicely between the Willie Williams original and the interpretation made famous by The Clash. Throughout, Sinéad O’Connor could be seen – at least from my vantage point – dancing enthusiastically at the monitor board.
To play alongside such talent is an honor for any artist, but Sinéad was greater graced by the additional presence of the 57-year old legend Winston Rodney, aka Burning Spear, composer both of her opening song ‘Jah Nuh Dead’ and the subsequent ‘Marcus Garvey.’ A renowned congas player, Rodney added his subtle percussive skills throughout the night, with occasional rasping backing vocals and frequent demands for crowd exhortation.
Two female backing singers brought the number of onstage musicians up to eleven, and most of them stayed on stage for all of the next hundred minutes, an almost punishingly long set, but an expertly sequenced one that ebbed and flowed, reaching climax several times. The first was during what I believe to have been Rodney’s own ‘Door Peep,’ where the group took off on a trance-like dub journey, propelled by Sly Dunbar’s syncopated drumming and abetted by Robbie Shakespeare’s rumbling bass. The second came with Lee Perry’s ‘Vampire,’ which sizzled with an enthusiasm verging on the dancehall, as Sinéad employed her trick of abruptly turning her head away from the microphone for whip-lash vocal effect. The banshee screams of her first two albums may no longer be a part of her vocal repertoire, but her voice maintains an emotion and clarity of purpose that few female singers can match.
As expected, the set was built around Throw Down Your Arms, and even the few sojourns from that album maintained the Jamaican theme: announcing it as a “Paddy song,” on the basis that all Irish girls would have sung it in their childhood, O’Connor performed ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ as a sweet reggae ballad. She then bounced back to the dub vibes with an intense delivery of ‘War’ (which closes out her new album), wryly dedicated to Saturday Night Live.
As the night progressed, Sinéad grew steadily more comfortable in her skin and confident on her toes, dancing freely and engaging the crowd in conversation. There was little discussion of her new direction, but many in the crowd had done their homework. Reggae covers are often considered the last refuge of desperation, but as O’Connor states on a video that accompanied my copy of Throw Down Your Arms, “I don’t like reggae, I’m strictly roots.” Indeed, her choice of material is so firmly immersed in the politics of the Rastaman that some might ask why Sinéad has embraced a movement no more feminist than her Catholic church. But then such issues always come up with spiritual and political music for all but the previously converted; better, perhaps, to simply lose oneself in the power of the singer’s own devotion – an easy enough decision for those O’Connor fans, like myself, who grew up listening to Rasta music.
Still, it’s perhaps worth noting that the night’s third and strongest climax was with Peter Tosh’s ‘Downpressor Man’ (dedicated “for the ladies”), which is free of all Rasta references and can instead be accepted as a universal protest song. O’Connor delivered the vengeful line “If you make your bed in hell, I will be there on that day,” with such velocity that her voice carried to the back of the room even as she withdrew the microphone to arms’ length. She concluded with ‘Jah Jah Children,’ dedicated to her stage-side son, whom she unabashedly addressed by the universal mother monikor of “pumpkin.”
The encore was the only let-down: Sinéad herself donned an acoustic guitar and, perhaps unable to perfect the upbeat reggae rhythm, delivered a version of Peter Tosh’s ‘Stepping Razor’ that came too close to folk music. Fortunately, the night was saved by a finale that replicated the reverent tenderness of the introduction – Sinéad , backed only by the acoustic guitar player, singing Luciano’s hymn-like ‘Jah Is My Keeper.’
Including the support section of the show, this concluded two and a half hours of non-stop music, and though Sinéad deserves credit for singing through almost 100 minutes with only the one “ciggy break”, the quality of her band could not be denied by even the most untutored of observers. This was roots reggae rendered thoroughly contemporary – neither burying the audience in dub nor watering down the music for easy consumption. In particular, Sly Dunbar has to be singled out for leading from the back with relentless power, dexterity and precision – the group’s endless ability to segue from one song to the next was close to magical.
A special note, again, for the audience. I saw Sinéad O’Connor at the height of her popularity in 1990 or 91 (at the show in New Jersey where she refused to honor the traditional performance of the American National Anthem, inadvertently incurring the wrath of Frank Sinatra and a boycott from misguided patriots); there she had begged the audience to respect her a capella version of ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,’ but nonetheless struggled through insensitive hoots and hollers. Her audience is now clearly older, obviously smaller, and certainly wiser. Only once at Webster Hall did I hear someone shout out the obvious (“Sinéad , we love you!”) and not at all did I hear any pointless request for hit singles of old.
On that note, Sinéad O’Connor has released just the one album of original studio material in a decade (2000’s poorly received “comeback” set Faith and Courage). Whether she ever bares her songwriting soul in public again remains to be seen, but clearly there remains enough love for her to suggest that it’s worth the effort. What path such compositions might follow is anyone’s guess, but even if her own love affair with Rastafarianism and roots rock reggae proves as short-lived as some of her other dalliances, nobody listening to Throw Down Your Arms – or in attendance at Webster Hall – could question the depth of her current passion.
Visit Sinéad O’Connor’s new web site to hear Throw Down Your Arms and watch clips of her recent TV performances with Sly & Robbie & co.
Visit Sinéad O’Connor’s myspace page to hear Throw Down Your Arms.
I purchased Throw Down Your Arms at iTunes (USA); my $10 purchase included three short video interviews with Sinead and the full album artwork.
You can also purchase Throw Down Your Arms at amazon.com here, or amazon.co.uk here