Sinead O'Connor, left, offered a happy vibe at Strathmore; Yo La Tengo celebrated the group's career in a low-key set at the Birchmere.
Sinead O'Connor, left, offered a happy vibe at Strathmore; Yo La Tengo celebrated the group's career in a low-key set at the Birchmere. (By Rafael Fuchs)
Friday, October 26, 2007

Sinead O'Connor

For most of Wednesday's show at Strathmore, Sinead O'Connor appeared happy with herself. Good for her. Not so good for her fans.

A lot of O'Connor's best material, which she has recently begun performing again after a hiatus, seems co-written by her personal demons. She can still summon a tortured soul in spurts. During "Never Get Old," a song she said she wrote at 15 after pursuing and being quickly dumped by "the coolest bloke" in school, O'Connor let loose with a few screams that could have come from some very dark place. And she flaunted a roof-shaking roar during an a cappella version of "In This Heart."

But such moments of bitter beauty were brief. O'Connor used to howl "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance," one of the most literal and saddest divorce chronicles ever put to song, as if revisiting that relationship was a key to her survival. On this night's rendering, however, O'Connor left out the tune's most brutal verse and didn't even try to hit the high notes that could once chill Hades. The performance could have used, to borrow some of the missing words, a little pain and misery.

Perhaps O'Connor, at 40, is not physically able to deliver those chills song after song: Her frequent coughing sounded like a smoker's hack. She is still sporting her trademark almost-shaved hairdo. But her facial features are now much rounder, so the 5 o'clock shadow on her scalp makes her look more like a soccer hooligan than a vulnerable waif.

The happy vibe worked well with O'Connor's newer songs -- among them "Something Beautiful" and "The Lamb's Book of Life" -- during which she focuses on spirituality and religion without feeling like she has to rip up the pope's picture. After delivering the new "Whomsoever Dwells," the mother of four was reduced to giggles as an infant -- yes, somebody brought an infant to the concert hall -- began squealing in the rafters. It wasn't a rock-and-roll moment, but it was very sweet.

-- Dave McKenna

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo played the cheekily titled "The Story of Yo La Tengo" at the Birchmere on Tuesday night, but it was what happened between songs that really made the singular show autobiographical. Subtitled "The Freewheelin' Yo La Tengo," the charming two-hour performance was part Q&A, part indie rock "Storytellers" and part low-key set, but it was all engaging -- a clever, casual celebration of the Hoboken, N.J., trio's 23-year career.

Ira Kaplan played acoustic guitar (summoning noisy bursts from it), Georgia Hubley played her two drums and cymbal with brushes and James McNew's electric bass was toned down, but the skeleton setup functioned wonderfully: It revealed the tenderness at the heart of the trio's songcraft and allowed the show to follow an unforced, conversational drift.

The many bits of YLT minutiae -- the story of the "Sugarcube" video, Hubley's early film career, McNew's dislike of Joni Mitchell ("yeah, even 'Blue' ") -- were interesting, but the atypical set list was illuminating. It included the hypnotic melodies of "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" and "Cherry Chapstick"; a nod to D.C. (via Jad and David Fair) with "Circus Strongman Runs for P.T.A. President"; the downright nutty (Rex Garvin & the Mighty Cravers' "Emulsified," Razzy Bailey's delirious "I Hate Hate"); and a wistful encore of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby." The trio played nearly telepathically, casting back through reams of songs with masterly grace. Even if they hang up their Chuck Taylors tomorrow, Tuesday's performance confirmed Yo La Tengo's place as indie rock's classiest elder statesmen.

-- Patrick Foster

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