SINEAD O'CONNOR with SLY & ROBBIE at Kool Haus, December 3. Tickets: $42.50. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNNN
You could hear the whole world go "Huh?" when news broke that Sinéad O'Connor , the Irish singer/songwriter and biggest-selling icon to tear up an 8-by-11 glossy of the pope on TV, had gone roots reggae.
Especially in the wake of Countryman (Lost Highway), Willie Nelson's middling joyride to Jamaica that hit the dance halls in July, O'Connor making the unlikely hop from Dublin to Kingston with covers of crucial songs by Burning Spear and Lee "Scratch" Perry among others for her new album, Throw Down Your Arms, seemed like the perfect formula for awkwardness.
But damned if it doesn't work, because she's just so tasteful with it. Having bona fide reggae legends Sly & Robbie - who produced her album and have worked with Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Serge Gainsbourg - opening for her, for example, was proof of said good judgment.
The duo (playing among a very full-sounding nine-piece band including trombone, sax and multiple percussion) heated up the audience at the Kool Haus , her only Canadian tour stop, for a strong stretch with a number of roots classics.
Wrapping it up with their own rendition of Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley's Welcome To Jamrock, Sly got on the mic to announce the singer "from the island called Ireland!" as the elfin O'Connor came up dressed mostly in white.
Sporting a do-rag-like head-tie and a scarf with an understated row of yellow, red and green stripes, O'Connor, accompanied only by the featherweight strummings of an electric guitar, opened at once with an impassioned rendering of Burning Spear's hallowed Jah No Dead.
Despite the fact that her accent makes it sound like "Jaw no day'd," she performs it like she means it, with a faceful of dedication, in a voice still clear as polished glass.
After this meditative opening, the incredible band threw down to keep things bumping along as O'Connor maintained a subtle amalgam of reverential devotion to the songs and her new Rastafari faith and the plucky "I'm doing what the fuck I want" tone that carried her through the 90s.
That combination was probably best represented by the light boogie she did while belting out more heated jams like Chant Down Babylon and Marcus Garvey.
She talked little save for some warm thanks and a few words with her monitor guy. But O'Connor's courage - and the fact that she pulled the show off - speaks volumes.