Dolores O’Riordan faces the crowd, her palms high above her head, and beams a broad, open smile. “Thank you! I love you!” she belts from the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall. Cravenly showbiz but undeniably heartfelt, the gesture is part Audrey Hepburn, part David Bowie. Clad in a dazzling gold-and-red sleeveless gown, surrounded by overstuffed bouquets of red roses, bathed in a pink circle of light, the petite lead singer of the Cranberries is in heaven.
During “Liar,” the next song, Noel Hogan hunches over his guitar, giving it a graceful arm flail for emphasis; drummer Fergal Lawler’s expression widens as his cymbals shimmer and subside; bassist Mike Hogan stands dead still. But all eyes are on O’Riordan. At the song’s instrumental break, she executes a lively Irish jig across the stage despite two metal plates and fiberglass ligament embedded in her knee after a skiing accident last March.
The night begins with an acoustic set for which the whole band dons suits and sits downstage. O’Riordan makes a grand entrance in oversize Victorian men’s formal wear, bow tie and tails included. A classical string quartet accompanies the band on retooled versions of some of its biggest hits: “Zombie,” “Ode to My Family” and “Dreaming My Dreams.”
In front of the roaring thousands, the Cranberries still manage to create an intimate, theatrical mood. As the strings wail and Noel Hogan lightly strums his acoustic guitar, O’Riordan shimmies around the stage, her hands raised, singing in perfect pitch. With her coat removed, in a dark vest and pale blouse, she could be Bowie’s Thin White Duke as she leans her microphone stand into the audience. Meet Dolores O’Riordan, rock star.
It really wasn’t so long ago that British recording executives and music journalists were jetting up to Limerick, Ireland, to catch a glimpse of four anonymous teenagers who wowed London pop circles with nothing more than a crude demo tape. Struck by the band’s raw talent and wide-eyed charm, the British music weeklies showered the Cranberries with praise months before their first album was even recorded. “Linger,” the first song the band ever wrote, became its first hit single.
Today, O’Riordan fronts a quartet that performs nightly for thousands of adoring fans and currently rivals Madonna in MTV air time. Having recently sold 5 million copies of their second album, No Need to Argue — which is now enjoying Top 10 status in the United States and a No. 1 ranking throughout much of Europe — the Cranberries have proved that their 1993 debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, which has sold 3.5 million copies to date, wasn’t a fluke. Throw in a few showcase events, like Woodstock ’94 and an upcoming MTV Unplugged appearance, and it’s easy to divine the source of O’Riordan’s unqualified mirth. The Cranberries are Ireland’s biggest musical export since U2.
But for a multiplatinum rock group, the Cranberries aren’t exactly what one might expect. Their reputation is that of a humble, earthy lot from Limerick — not Dublin, heart of Ireland’s happening music scene — who first found success in this country’s alternative market after being rejected at home. Hardly a blowout live, the Cranberries’ low-key delivery is often subsumed by audience din. Then there are the wonderfully subtle musical gestures — such as playing with a string quartet — that would render any other act horribly pretentious.
The audience demands an encore by banging the albert Hall’s creaky wooden floors with its feet. O’Riordan obliges with a crowd silencing rendition of “No Need to Argue,” accompanied only by a violin and the mammoth Albert Hall pipe organ. O’Riordan’s voice, with its round tones and nuanced yodels, bespeaks Irish tradition, but it its distinguished by a slight hoarseness that hints faintly at inner anger. For this reason, O’Riordan has been compared with Sinéad O’Connor, though O’Riordan loathes the comparison. “What I do is so different,” she says. “I might have been singing before she ever sang — who knows? It’s not like I’m not going to sing because somebody from up the road got there first because she was a few years older than me.” But O’Riordan has made up for lost time; so much so that at the age of 23, she is already writing road-weary lyrics like “Understand what I’ve become/It wasn’t my design.”
Four days later, I wait for O’Riordan in room 663 of London’s lavish Regent hotel (despite England’s chronically inclement weather, 20-foot palm trees flourish in the hotel’s six-story glass-enclosed atrium). The night before, she interrupted our fastidiously arranged interview midway to keep a massage appointment. During the past few days, in fact, each member of the band has brazenly foiled casual plans to meet — surreptitiously ducking out to dinner, the movies, a soccer match, even other interviews. But only O’Riordan has the star trappings: the personal wardrobe assistant, the doting husband and the gnawing tendency of referring to herself in the third person (“I put Dolores first, always,” she tells me). After five days of scheduled hang time in London, two of which O’Riordan somehow manages to spend in Ireland, I opt to delay an early-morning flight home in desperate hopes of winning one final sitting after O’Riordan offers to visit my room for breakfast.