The blunt, vulnerability of Sinead O’Connor’s shorn head appears stark as she stands on a large stage in the beautiful converted church of St Luke’s. But Ireland’s wild child, no stranger to controversy, who happily says “I’m as dry as a nun’s…” in a chapel, can lay her emotions bare more powerfully now than when her cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was number one in 14 countries in 1990.
The 46-year-old has had a tumultuous life. She is promoting her new album How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? (widely considered to be her best in a decade) a year late after cancelling its promotional tour while she battled bipolar disorder. She appears uncertain in her own skin, constantly self-deprecating in the third person: "That's a classic Sinead buggering up the chords when there are only two...silly bitch". But despite her evident insecurity, the performance is faultless.
She is very solemn, rarely smiling, her voice switching from huskiness to a treacle-like richness between breaths. Happily, it soon becomes apparent that Sinead likes a joke. On opener "Queen of Denmark" she sings of having "had it all the way up my hairline/ Which keeps receding" and "doing her hair up tight" on the brilliant, joyful "4th and Vine".
Introducing the latter, a brilliant rhythm and blues-influenced ditty about a girl putting on a pink dress for her wedding, she asks: "Am I allowed to dance in this kind of place?” This upbeat interlude in an otherwise morose set does have an edge -the reference to her 2011 Las Vegas wedding to Barry Herridge (at which she wore a pink dress) is hard to avoid. The marriage only lasted 16 days, but during this number Sinead dances ecstatically.
Her famous appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1992 when she tore up a picture of the Pope casts something of a shadow in the ecclesiastical setting. While performing her "favourite songs" from album Theology, "Whomsoever" and "Psalm 33", her vocal is fervent – and on her fiercest condemnation of Catholicism “Take Off Your Shoes”, about the child abuse scandal, I see those around me moved to tears.
Tonight’s "Nothing Compares 2 U", the Prince cover that has remained her legacy, was quite different from the original. Coming late in the set, and after a bit of jokey banter, it felt devoid of power compared to the newer material. I suspect Sinead’s fed up with singing it – and it was the lowest point in an otherwise remarkable evening.