The self-proclaimed ‘gender terrorist’ enlisted artistic powerhouses Justin Vivian Bond and Peaches in an homage to the Irish singer’s career-defining debut

I should never have doubted Christeene.

Equal parts punk rock and gutter drag, Christeene is a “gender terrorist” stage persona in the tradition of Jayne County. Her creator, a Louisiana native, has been based in New York for over a decade—and on Monday night at City Winery, we gathered to witness an unusual theatrical event. As a ’90s-core general audience stood in front of the stage and well-appointed seated patrons sipped wine to the left and right, Christeene performed the entirety of Sinéad O’Connor’s 1987 debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, with supporting spots by Justin Vivian Bond and Peaches. Last Monday was the first of two New York City shows, preceded by a one-night stand in LA. “The show is called The Lion, The Witch, and The Cobra,” she said early in the show between songs. “And there are three shows, one in LA and two in New York. If you need me to explain what that means you’re really fucking dumb.” That Monday’s leitmotif, in other words, was “The Witch.”

Sinéad O’Connor’s transcendent magic had three fundamental components: she was a strong songwriter; she had a voice like an angel, with immaculate pitch and clarity; and she filled both her songs and her voice with an incandescent force that turned even her corniest lyrics into emotional daggers. Christeene is…less famous for her purity of tone. Of the night’s three singers, only Peaches has what you would call pipes; Bond is a powerful, captivating performer who makes every song she sings absolutely her own, but bel canto is not her primary spell component. That left two foundations to support the show: the strength of the material, and pure energy. Fortunately, two out of three was more than enough.

O’Connor was famously earnest onstage and off. The three singers at City Winery are all known for heavy use of irony and subversion, frequently performing with tongue firmly in cheek. A concern going in was that blase irreverence and irony could descend into carelessness or even mockery. O’Connor’s debut album is too important to me to have it demeaned, even with good intentions. I worried in vain. There was, certainly, the expected overlay filter of queer satire and distance; at the very least, the incongruity of vocal skill needed to be remarked on, and Christeene pointed out several times that she was channeling O’Connor’s spirit, not her notes. But satire and distance were thoroughly blended with respect, passion, and humor. It was obvious that all three singers, and especially Christeene, hold great reverence for the recently departed Irish tempest. And I’ve seen Bond cover songs often enough to know her biting irony always comes with obvious devotion and tenderness.

Christeene is indelibly linked with a performatively trashy punk drag persona, and the backing band was CBGB’s enough, to be sure, tight and hard with a soupçon of sloppy just for effect. But the aesthetics and staging of her shows are more elaborate, inventive, and eye-catching. There is, first of all, very extensive between-song banter; turns out that’s how a 42-minute album becomes a 100-minute live show. Some of it is clearly ad-libbed, but some bits also have their own pre-prepared props. For the first couple of songs, your brain is confused or even irritated; we’ve all been to a live concert before: It’s pretty important to keep a certain flow going between songs for overall effect. Is she going to talk this long between every song? Yes, she is, and eventually you understand why: Every number in the show is its own little aesthetic world, with its own visual, sonic, and gestural language. The free-associative talking is a palate cleanser. There are regular outfit changes. There are two backup dancers who come out periodically to perform modest but sharp and distinctive choreography. The punk thing isn’t fake, precisely, but this level of attention to lighting, staging, and costume requires at least one and possibly several people with a professional knowledge of the proscenium stage. It may be DIY, but slapped-together this show is not.

Along with its own look, each song also got its own new arrangement. During the show it became clear (yet again) just what a crafty songwriter O’Connor had been. O’Connor’s voice was inimitable, and some moments in some songs will probably never be performed quite right again by anyone, ever. But covers reveal better than anything whether that track you love is a great song or just a great performance. Removed from the passion and commitment of the performer, does the song still carry water? Even more telling is a song’s ability to transform—the stronger the bones of the song, the more amenable it will be to rearrangement, remixing, reconstitution. The incredible thing, as Christeene pointed out several times between numbers, is that O’Connor wrote at least four of the tracks on her debut album while still in high school, but there is nothing juvenile or naïve about any of them. Some four decades later, they’ve lost none of their power.

Perhaps the most dramatic transformation was “(I Want Your) Hands On Me.” A juicy, cowbell-driven slice of ’80s drum-machine funk, in 1988 the original was featured in A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master, a breakout moment for O’Connor. In Christeene’s hands, it was completely reimagined, slowed down and stripped to just a kick and a hissing hi-hat that steadily built into a squall of drone feedback. On the other end of the spectrum, the number that best captured the spirit and force of O’Connor’s version was also the most intimate, ferocious, and challenging track on the album—“Troy,” the epic mini-symphony that’s both about a spurned lover and the brutal abuse the singer faced from her mother as a child. “It’s not a song, it’s a fucking testament,” O’Connor once said of the track.

Here Peaches appeared to handle lead vocals. I’ve seen them live before and I knew they could sing, but it turns out they can sing. “Troy” is an incredibly difficult vocal, rushing from hushed whispers to incendiary roars in a matter of seconds. I had never before seen any performer cover the song and felt like they did it justice. But Peaches did, egged on by supporting yells from Christeene. For anyone who loves The Lion and The Cobra, Peaches’s rendition of that song alone was worth the price of admission. But then we also got a raucous, vehement version of “Drink Before the War” featuring Justin Vivian Bond and almost all of the original lyrics.

O’Connor was often moody and unpredictable, and it’s hard to say for sure what she would or wouldn’t have approved of. But I truly believe she would have been tickled fucking pink at the sight of this queer band of ne’er-do-wells raucously celebrating her legacy with force, intent, and devotion, if not perfect pitch.