Rock: A new, happy, rather dull Sinead

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Customary reactions to Sinead O'Connor are nothing if not extreme: an arenaful of boos at a Bob Dylan tribute gig, a fortnight after she shredded a photo of the Pope on TV; placards and picket lines when she vetoed the US national anthem at the start of her concerts; splutterings in the press when she mentioned her abortions, and the abuse she'd suffered at the hands of her mother. So when she walked on stage at the London Forum on Monday to nothing but ecstatic cheers, one had the unsettling feeling that something must have been wrong.

Actually, of course, the reverse was true. O'Connor has come through her recent traumas alive and well, and the loving welcome at this rare concert was, more than anything else, a simple expression of relief. In return, her smile illuminated the building.

Still wearing combat trousers, O'Connor was none the less more Spice Girl than Tank Girl. The former skinhead was sporting a footballer's bob, trainers had replaced Doc Martens, and a halter top showed off stomach muscles that are a distant memory for most mothers of two.

The birth of O'Connor's second child and her own 30th birthday have seen her reach a degree of contentment at last, and her music has adjusted accordingly. Whatever the onstage rant or offstage controversy, her defence has always been that she was only being true to herself: angry Sinead equals angry music. And, while one must be very, very careful before wishing any more troubles on her, this formula means that better life equals worse music. On Monday she played nothing from her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, and she softened up the songs from her second. Mostly she played simple, repetitive ballads, swaddled in thick cello, penny-whistle sounds from a keyboard, and layers of harmony from her four backing singers.

Who would have thought O'Connor would ever be criticised for being too nice and bland? "This Is To Mother You", from her Gospel Oak EP (Chrysalis), was lovely and balming, and "Fire on Babylon", from 1994's Universal Mother, retained its threatening groove, O'Connor's vocals shining a pure white light through the churning murk of the music. Detractors may think she has a big mouth, but no one can deny that the voice which emanates from it has little competition this side of the astral plane. Often, though, this was music to advertise all those not-quite-Guinness beers by. If there's anyone who can rescue Irish folk from its Riverdance-Blarneyland associations, it's O'Connor, but she didn't quite do so on Monday. In the audience, couples hugged each other contentedly, and surely that's the worst reaction she's ever had.

This week's other review is of a gig that took place a week last Friday at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. By rights, it's too far out of date to be included here, but we can make allowances for an event as signifi- cant as a reunion of Talking Heads.

It was an unusual sort of reunion, mind you, in that no member of the band apart from David Byrne attended. The Other Three had their own get- together last year, as the Heads, and maybe it was this event that reawakened Byrne's paternal feelings for the Talking Heads back catalogue, and spurred him to dream up a dazzling reminder of who was in charge of that band, anyway. On his last British tour, in 1994, Byrne was miserly with his old band's songs. This time, he opened with "Once in a Lifetime", and gave us "Take Me to the River" and "Road to Nowhere" later on. The look of the 1994 shows was one of monochrome asceticism. This time, Byrne competed with the visuals of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme's 1984 Talking Heads concert film. His manner was wide-eyed, nervy, a sparrow on a lawn; his couture a shaggy shocking-pink suit, possibly made from the skin of a Sesame Street puppet. "Same as it ever was," indeed.

Maybe Byrne was ready to court comparison with his younger self (he's 45, and could pass for 30) because he knows his current album, Feelings (Luaka Bop), can hold its own against his younger self's material. Each song is a whistle-stop tour of genres, navigated last week by a bassist, a backing singer and two men in keyboard-lined command modules, who turned their hands to steel guitar and live drums when required. "Daddy Go Down" started as a yodelling Appalachian folk song, before heading into jungle territory, then to techno, stopping off for a sampled sitar twang along the way. Is Byrne related to Beck, by any chance? I think we should be told.

The pair don't just share a restive eclecticism, but also a style of showmanship. Both are fond of clockwork-toy dancing, pumping up their own alien geekiness until it reaches the height of cool, and specialising in an exaggerated silliness that would seem horribly contrived if it didn't come from someone who played it absolutely straight.

Byrne begins "Miss America", a loving but unflinching update of West Side Story's "America", by tangoing with his backing vocalist. She wears a papery boiler suit, a feather in her hair and glitter on her face; Byrne, who was born in Scotland, is by this time wearing a kilt. For the chorus, he falls to one bare knee, throws out his arms and lets out an operatic croon, before getting up for a quick Highland Fling.

But even this tour de force was topped by an astonishing rendition of "Psycho Killer". Byrne crept around the stage, covered head to foot in a mask and a bodysuit printed with muscles, veins and bones: to make this costume, it seemed, he had been skinned himself. Same as it ever was? Yes, or better.

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