Ever since I was a surly teenager in Doc Martens, I have loved Sinéad O'Connor. Unlike many other, image conscious, pop stars, the striking singer has never been afraid to speak her mind, stick two fingers up to the world, or wear her heart on her sleeve - and has always been a great inspiration to me. Her first album, The Lion and the Cobra, came out in 1987, when I was 13. Back then her songs of angst and heartache spoke to my hormonal psyche, and I was drawn to her rebellious, free-spirited persona. I have bought every album since, and each has resonated with me at different stages of my life.
I went to see Sinéad live about 10 years ago, at the Apollo in Hammersmith. It was a memorable, if not very intimate show. Since then she has rarely been on the touring circuit, and her musical output has been sporadic. So when I saw on Melting Vinyl's listings that they had bagged her for a gig at St George's in Kemp Town, I was giddy with excitement. I've seen many gigs at St George's, mostly folky/acoustic acts that suited the serene surroundings. But this was the first time I'd seen a full on rock gig there, and it turned out to be a truly sensational experience.
After a mellow support act, Sinéad stepped onto the stage, rocking a leather corset that showed off her many tattoos. Still completely shorn, a sprinkling of grey was visible in the skinhead stubble that poked out from under her headscarf. As soon as she let loose that dazzling smile of hers, the room lit up with the promise of a special night. Her voice was on fine form as she sang a string of classics from the back catalogue, including No Man's Woman, The Emperor's New Clothes, This is the Last Day of Our Acquaintance, Jackie, and of course, her most famous hit, Nothing Compares 2 U. These were interspersed with songs from the new album, How About I Be Me (and You Be You), which came out earlier this month - her first release in five years. I particularly enjoyed 4th and Vine - a song about getting married that was introduced with a cheeky anecdote about altering the colour of the eyes in the song to match her changing boyfriends - and her fervent cover of John Grant's Queen of Denmark (which is on the new album).
The audience was rapt when Sinéad despatched the band and sang I Am Stretched on Your Grave unaccompanied, revealing the true soul drenching power of her voice. At once fierce and fragile, she sings with eyes shut tight, entirely consumed by the words she is delivering. From this intense state, she relaxed easily into the inter-song banter, chatting and making jokes - keeping the audience engaged throughout. Usually I begrudge going through the motions of an obligatory encore, but in this case the riotous demand was justified. Having given a standing ovation to the final song of the set, the whole crowd remained upright for a bonus four songs - and loving every moment.
Practically the whole audience (including me and Ant) piled into the Barley Mow afterwards, collectively raving about the gig as they knocked back celebratory nightcaps. Especially touching were the overheard words of those who had gone along with fairly low expectations and been happily blown away. It was one of those nights where everyone felt united by a shared happening of something rare and momentous. For me personally, it re-affirmed 25 years of admiration and, most importantly of all, put me back in touch with that boot-wearing adolescent who has been sadly dormant of late. Thank you, Sinéad, for reminding me who I am again.