O’Connor’s reggae is righteous

Boston Globe, December 8, 2005

Sinead O’Connor doesn’t give a damn. At 39 and officially retired from the pop life, the stellar Irish singer has found a spiritual home in Rastafari and a renewed musical purpose in interpreting hallowed roots-reggae classics. Whether this personal evolution makes any sense to you is not her problem. And, considering the depth and searing authenticity of her performance Monday at Avalon, more power to her.

O’Connor hasn’t done things halfway. She enlisted for her latest album, “Throw Down Your Arms,” one of the world’s greatest rhythm sections, drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, guardians of the tradition who do not pick their projects lightly. She is working with spiritually charged texts from reggae mystics like Peter Tosh and the Abyssinians. And by leaving the arrangements unchanged, she has challenged herself to inhabit the songs with the force of their originators.

And she succeeds. Only on the Burning Spear classic “Marcus Garvey” did her piercing voice fall short of Winston Rodney’s inimitable wail. But “Abendigo,” “Door Peep,” and more were exquisite, O’Connor maneuvering the mike like an instrument, holding it close and then away in complicity with the syncopated beats.

Earlier, the band, led by Sly and Robbie, had warmed the crowd with a typically scorching set. But it wasn’t until the headliner took the stage that the show became complete. Clad in denim with a blue do-rag, the slender O’Connor seemed less the brazen interloper and more an incarnation of the reggae creature called ragamuffin.

The wise old natty-dreads nodded in appreciation, but others in the audience hadn’t gotten the memo. “It’s a little different,” one woman was observed text-messaging. Still, O’Connor acknowledged her traditional audience, inviting anyone versed in Irish dancing to join her onstage. (None did.)

Of course, a longstanding sympathy binds Ireland with Jamaica, island nations that experienced British colonial rule. A member of the band in Roddy Doyle’s “The Commitments” calls the Irish the black people of Europe, using an epithet. O’Connor expressed the connection perhaps a little more elegantly. “We Africans will fight, we find it necessary,” she sang on Bob Marley’s classic “War.” Preach, sister, preach.