Intimate venue tours, used in recent years by veteran talent such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Green Day, have been a boon for artists wanting to expose their latest recorded works to packed houses of enthusiastic and attentive fans. Annie Lennox has entered her 15-city, small theater tour armed with an impressive, rabble-rousing album, “Songs of Mass Destruction,” and one of rock’s most powerful and distinct voices sounding great on the record. But she has created a career-spanning show rather than one that focuses on the album, choosing to deliver a short show that played up nostalgia and her new single “Sing,” but kept her audience at arm’s length.
It’s not clear how intentional it was but once “Sing” and its attendant video on AIDS in Africa had been played, it seemed the initial 65 minutes of music was a lead-up to this, the Big Important Moment, that actually gave the evening an uncomfortable, out-of-balance tilt. The night, up to that point, was all about the music and the memories; she wasn’t so much pitching a new disc or an agenda as she was working a rich catalog. Nobody was really prepared for the shift in tone.
“Sing,” proceeds which will be used to fight AIDS in Africa, sat in the set’s penultimate position. It also marked the one time in the concert she spoke and her fiery approach seemed far removed from the performer the audience had been watching for the previous hour and 10 minutes.
The song was certainly performed well, but the lack of a crowd response appeared to frustrate her. And any time a performer wants to see their audience galvanize around a chorus or a message and the result is thousands of blank stares, they probably don’t notice the hundreds of standing ovations the rest of the material attracts.
Lennox, if she wants to continue delivering the B.I.M., should be easing her audience to that point, telling stories or offering political and social insight along the way. As we were reminded by videos on the large rectangle screen at the back of the stage, Lennox has often been a costumed character, one who steps inside dramatic roles in her songs and raises issues that may or may not be personal. She’s also a woman who proudly and accurately used the term “diva” before it became so carelessly overused.
“Mass Destruction” and its predecessor, “Bare,” reveal Lennox’s enduring relevancy: She’s no ’80s act forced to reproduce a version of her video-self. She proved that with a new song, “Ghosts in My Machine,” a soul-warming amalgamation of southern R&B and techno with a zydeco flourish. There were no “ghosts” — aka old videos — to beam behind her and ultimately it was the evening’s strongest perf. And her band, sharp in most places, nuance-deficient in a couple, gave it their all possessing the song in a way they rarely did throughout the night.
Lennox shines brightest when she reaches deep down to punctuate a line or two with either piercing alto or a deep-throated roar. Evening’s second tune, “Little Bird,” exposed her unique balance of cabaret and gospel and her command of both; “Here Comes the Rain Again,” performed by her lonesome at the piano, was one of the intimate moments you wished could be bottled up and used over and over; and, quite surprisingly, Eurythmics hits “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “When Tomorrow Comes” sounded fresh and energized.
“Pavement Cracks,” a ballad from “Bare” that is one of her most stunning blends of electronic and acoustic instrumentation, was the one major misstep. Lennox missed some notes early on and never recovered; the band turned sluggish and helpless and, a minute into it, they might as well have stopped and started over. In a few other instances, the band overwhelmed the singer in volume.
Lennox performs Nov. 3 at United Palace in New York as part of this tour.