Throughout an earnest 110 minutes at Chicago’s Vic Theatre on Tuesday night, Sinead O’Connor made clear her determination to no longer perform the music that made her famous. Backed by Jamaican masters Sly and Robbie and a six-piece band, O’Connor shunned songs like her Number One hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” in favor of reggae standards sung with an almost religious fervor.
One of pop music’s most infamous iconoclasts, O’Connor built her career around confounding people’s expectations and reinventing her sound: from wailing electric-guitar-wielding rocker, to heart-wrenching balladeer, to Broadway show-tune diva, to traditional Irish crooner. And while she’s certainly invited controversy along the way — her public protests of the Pope and the American national anthem perhaps overshadowed her music — anybody questioning the sincerity of her latest persona just had to watch her shuffle and sway to the Caribbean-inflected rhythms to grasp her spiritual connection to reggae music and Rastafarian culture. At the Vic, O’Connor took her new musical endeavor so seriously, it was all but impossible for audience members not to do the same.
Introduced as “Sister Sinead,” O’Connor strode onstage in a loose blue shirt, jeans and a headscarf covering her famously shaven head. She led with a hushed, acoustic version of “Jah Nuh Dead,” the opening song from her new collection of reggae covers, Throw Down Your Arms. Her effervescent rendition of Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey,” colored by blaring, staccato bursts of saxophone and trombone, paid homage to the black nationalist with its celebratory melody and set the evening’s tone.
For its part, the crowd was remarkably attentive, only shouting requests in the final encore. O’Connor introduced her final song, “Jah Is My Keeper,” remarking that it was written by her favorite songwriter. When somebody in the audience screamed “Prince!” — the writer of “Nothing Compares to U” — O’Connor biliously snapped, “No, Peter fucking Tosh! Fuck that fucking midget!”
Otherwise, the show skimped on drama, focusing instead on O’Connor’s still stunning vocals, which rose to a ululating high on “Vampire.” “A true Rasta man always humble,” she cried. An equally riveting, horn-flecked version of Bob Marley’s “War” also allowed O’Connor to belt, while an acoustic performance of the reggae classic “Untold Stories” demonstrated her versatility and musical muscle.
Throughout the show, O’Connor invested her biggest asset — her voice — into the songs, emphasizing the spiritual struggles inherent in the lyrics. Her intensely personal singing, along with drummer Sly Dunbar’s inventive playing, prevented the material from ever seeming repetitive — a challenge, considering much of the music’s similarity in structure and rhythm.