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The songs of Sinead O’Connor and Shane MacGowan fill Carnegie Hall in a fiery salute

Roisin Waters, Sinead O'Connor's daughter, performs "Nothing Compares 2 U" at the Carnegie Hall tribute to her late mother and singer Shane MacGowan.Al Pereira

NEW YORK — It’s a minor miracle that Shane MacGowan, the Irish singer and world-class inebriate, survived to age 65. It’s a tragedy that his ferocious contemporary, Sinead O’Connor, never got to see her 60s. When they both died last year, just four months apart, two grand voices were extinguished.

On Wednesday, Carnegie Hall was packed from parquet to balcony with honorary Irishmen, as City Winery presented an all-star tribute that brought their defiant music back to piercing, roaring life. The performers — among them Steve Earle, David Gray, Imelda May, and Bettye LaVette — mostly ceded the star power to the songs themselves. The night’s proceeds raised more than $70,000 for the human rights organization PEN America.


Boston was well-represented, with Dropkick Murphys leading a full-throated sing-along on the Pogues’ “The Body of an American” (“I’m a freeborn man of the USA”) and Provincetown regular Gordon Gano plucking a violin on “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” Amanda Palmer offered a stark version of O’Connor’s Margaret Thatcher protest song “Black Boys on Mopeds,” with her father, Jack, accompanying on guitar.

“It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say something,” Palmer said as she took the stage. With the music industry in flux and artists increasingly hesitant to speak out for fear of being “canceled,” she said, O’Connor’s music is just as relevant now as it was in her heyday.

“How do you put a price tag on the way Sinead O’Connor’s voice makes you feel?” Palmer said.

Several of the evening’s participants plumbed the depths of the feels in O’Connor’s songs. After a solitary bagpiper strode down the aisle to ring in the event, the luminous Kat Edmondson sang “In This Heart” to the rafters. Cat Power brought her trademark husky anguish to “Feel So Different.” LaVette, the late-blooming soul singer who described herself as “the proud wife of an Irishman,” stunned the crowd with an unaccompanied version of “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”


May, who was close with both of the departed, took the stage in a traditional Palestinian tatreez dress.

“Being a good Irishwoman, I’m against occupation and genocide,” she said, to loud approval. “We know what that feels like.” She also commended “those gorgeous Jewish friends who use their voices for peace.”

“It’s not easy,” she said.

The performers at the Sinead O'Connor/Shane MacGowan tribute, including David Gray (with outstretched arms) fill the Carnegie Hall stage for the finale.Al Pereira

About a dozen members of the Resistance Revival Chorus delivered a rousing rendition of O’Connor’s “Thank You for Hearing Me,” which featured a hymn-like prelude demanding a “ceasefire now” in Gaza. Both O’Connor and MacGowan, said the latter’s widow, Victoria Mary Clarke, were humanitarians who identified with the downtrodden despite any celebrity they may have earned.

Tony Shanahan’s house band, featuring (among others) the multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and original Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, kept things moving at a brisk pace. They leaned hard into the waltz time of “A Rainy Night in Soho,” with Billy Bragg taking the MacGowan lead, and they backed Glen Hansard — the singer who led a packed church in song at MacGowan’s funeral service — on the traditional “I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day.”

The English songwriter David Gray was the night’s sole performer to cross the lads-and-lasses divide. He sang a striking version of O’Connor’s “Three Babies,” which set the stage for the event’s revelation — Roisin Waters, one of O’Connor’s three surviving children, and her spitting image. She sang her mother’s biggest hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” in bare feet and a voice that filled the hall.


To no one’s surprise, the show came to a close with an all-hands-on-deck version of “Fairytale of New York,” the spicy Pogues Christmastime anthem. Hansard led the crowd, as he did at the funeral. O’Riordan took the mic for the female counterpart, which was originally sung by the late Kirsty MacColl.

It was her father, Ewan, who wrote “Dirty Old Town,” which the Pogues made their own. The ragtag band of celebrants tackled that as an encore. They spanned the wide stage, grinning and hugging, and sending a sated crowd out onto the streets of the dirty old town.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.