McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

[Photo: Roberto Fontana]

Seeing a reclusive artist return to the stage is always a treat. But seeing that artist put on an arresting concert in a small venue can be life-affirming.

Due to a series of mental health crises that culminated in a 2017 Facebook video where she threatened to commit suicide, Sinéad O’Connor’s name has recently been in the news more for her personal crises than her music. In fact, the 53-year-old singer is still best known for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” her 1990 cover of an obscure Prince song that catapulted her to fame. She continued releasing albums at a steady clip since then (her latest being 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss), but news around O’Connor always seemed to be less about the music and more about other incidents, including the infamous moment when she ripped up a photo of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live.”

When O’Connor announced her most recent tour, it was surprising that she would play such a small ballroom and charge a modest price in a day and age where “legacy” acts often gouge audiences for such an intimate experience. The concert began promptly at 8pm as the less than 1,000 people in attendance found their seats. O’Connor took the stage wearing a green dress and a black hijab. She converted to Islam two years ago and though she tours under Sinéad O’Connor, she has changed her name to Shuhada Davitt.

Flanked by a five-piece band, O’Connor immediately opened the show with a cover of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark,” belting out his sardonic lyrics such as “Why don’t you take it on somebody else?/ Why don’t you bore the shit out of somebody else?” She presented as an artist in complete control and she remained that way over the 17-song, 75-minute performance.

O’Connor’s best songs are often born from pain. The most riveting moments of the show came when she reached deep into her emotional morass for an a capella version of “I am Stretched on Your Grave” to a heartbreaking rendition of “Thank You for Hearing Me.” There were some moments of throwaway rock songs (“4th and Vine”), but they only felt like breathers from the emotional pull of songs like “In This Heart.”

O’Connor’s voice has weathered a bit with time. She no longer reaches for those higher registers that defined her early work. An Irish lilt is more perceptible. Still, the voice is distinctly hers, never more recognizable than when “Nothing Compares 2 U” appeared 13 songs in. The crowd filled in the “ooh ooh oohs” as momentum slowly built. The fact that O’Connor introduced the song with a twerking joke made the moment even more special.

After finishing the first set with “Hold Back the Night,” O’Connor returned for just two more numbers – the haunting “Milestones” and “Back Where You Belong”- before slipping back off-stage. Despite raucous applause, we couldn’t coax her out again. O’Connor looked like she was in a good place. We can’t ask anything more of her.

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