Sinead's NY return is all about the music
On the large monitor at Sinead O'Connor's feet is a taped notice saying simply: "breathe".
It's little wonder that she might need such a reminder here in New York. This city, after all, is the scene of some of her greatest and most infamous career moments. It was here, in Radio City Music Hall, that she collected the first of her Grammys. It was here, in 1992, that she ripped up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live, in the process committing a wilful act of career suicide. And it was here she later encountered the hostile wall of sound that threatened to engulf her performance of Bob Dylan's I believe in You at Madison Square Garden.
On Friday night, the sell-out crowd at the rather more intimate and downtown City Winery seems to have long forgotten such chest-tightening episodes. They came, one group tells me, expecting big things – the review for last week's show was rapturous; the Chicago Tribune said: "She can still sing the holy hell out of songs."
In New York, Sinead bounds on stage in high spirits and, despite her professed shyness (she insists on leaving her shades on throughout most of the performance), soon unleashes the soulful ululation they've paid around €120 a ticket to witness.
Over the past few weeks, she's been vilified by Miley, lionised by Kanye, but tonight is about the music. This, she seems to be reminding everyone, is what she first became famous for.
Which is not to say that she doesn't, as usual, mix the personal and the political. What Is a Real VIP – widely reckoned to be a pop at Bono – assumes a new significance given the open letter furores of the last weeks. The lyrics – "Telling the youth to worship futile dreams/And along for bling and for material things" – could just as easily have been written for the former Hannah Montana and her army of teenage fans.
It's the older songs that get the crowd going, though. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is dedicated to the recently deceased Lou Reed. Jackie, The Last Day of Our Acquaintance and, of course, Nothing Compares 2 U all produce their own mini ovations and a wall of camera phones held aloft, although there is little dancing and no moshing. Nowadays, the teenagers of the 1990s evidently prefer to enjoy their music seated, with a $70 (€52) bottle of wine in front of them.
Backstage, deep in the bowels of the building, things are a little more raucous. A thick, hypnotic reggae beat churns out of the speakers and Sinead does a little elfin dance of joy, although there is, of course, no twerking. She has been sleep-deprived after partying a little and singing the blues at an impromptu performance in Chicago. The last few weeks have been "rough", she tells me, even if the tour has gone great. Her former partner, Frank Bonadio, is here in New York, lending moral support, and her long-time band, which includes former husband John Reynolds, is also here.
This is the first of three Manhattan shows and, before the clock strikes, the crew are making their way back to the hotel to regroup. Miley might have sang about being "up all night", but for Sinead, even on her triumphant return to New York City, midnight is quite enough.