Monday, June 01, 2009

The Blinding Light

Antony and the Johnsons - London Hammersmith Apollo, 27th May 2009

This was my first full live encounter with Antony and the Johnsons. I’m prepared to admit that, for many, the novelty will by now have worn off, as indeed it has for me a little on record. Yet there can be little doubt that Antony Hegarty is a distinctive and important voice – unpredictable in personality, but clear and deeply touching in voice. It is a voice that has the power to move in complicated ways. As my girlfriend perceptively pointed out, his songs are essentially uplifting. Whilst they are often tinged with melancholy or deep sadness, the overriding characteristic is hope.

The show began with fifteen minutes of contemporary dance that I have to confess was a bit lost on me. Having said that, it fitted with Antony’s New York art aesthetic and made more sense as an opening than having a conventional support act would have done. When the band took to the stage, most of the musicians appeared as mere silhouettes, so dim was the lighting. I was a little concerned that this would remain the atmosphere for the whole show but the subtle changes in lighting enhanced the impact of the performance, with Antony only gradually illuminated. A glaring lantern near-blinded the audience during ‘The Crying Light’ and again at the end of the show, during the encore of ‘Hope There’s Someone’.

Even the songs I like least from ‘The Crying Light’ seem to come alive in these performances, with nuanced arrangements that are at once both intimate and overpowering. It was an unconventional band set-up – with Antony on piano, accompanied by a musical and dynamically restrained drummer, a bassist who frequently played melodic lines and a string group where one of the violinists doubled on guitar. Perhaps most interesting of all though were the contributions on saxophone and clarinet. This arrangement stripped some of the bombast from the more self-consciously dramatic material but also provided a compelling counterpoint to Antony’s still staggering voice.

These were performances where detail and texture really mattered. In this environment, the fearsome, nasty and explosive guitar solo that threatened to overpower ‘Fistful of Love’ became even more menacing for its contrast with all that surrounded it. I had wondered whether Antony’s vibrato might become tiresome over the course of a two hour set, but placed in contexts that varied from the soulful to the more theatrical, it continued to draw an emotional response right up to the show’s conclusion.

I would have to concede that the songs that mine the subjects of gender, sexuality and androgyny remain the most powerful of his songs. It’s fair enough that he shouldn’t want to mine these subjects forever, but the touching vulnerability that accompanies ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’, ‘Hope There’s Someone’ and ‘You Are My Sister’ is not a major feature of ‘The Crying Light’. The gently lilting ‘Aeon’ certainly strives for it, but it feels a little more transparent and contrived. Hopefully, ‘The Crying Light’ is a transitional statement on the path to finding new subjects and contexts for that remarkable voice.

Nature and the various man-made threats to it are clearly preoccupying Antony’s mind nowadays, so much so that he makes a quite lengthy speech about ‘Hope Mountain’ being his response to climate change, imagining Jesus returning in feminine form in the hills of Afghanistan. The song itself is far from the most memorable in the set though. Luckily, his talk proved weirdly entertaining, aware of much of life’s absurdity and charmingly self-mocking. On this basis, most people seemed happy to indulge him this protracted digression from the music.

Musically, some of the less predictable moments in the set pointed towards potential new avenues. It was good to hear ‘Shake The Devil’, a more percussive moment from the ‘Another World’ EP that highlighted the saxophone and, in its slightly darker sound, vaguely resembled something The Bad Seeds might concoct. The aforementioned ‘Fistful of Love’ guitar solo was even more unexpected. Perhaps these only worked because of the striking contrast with the gentleness and tenderness elsewhere, but they did serve to highlight the fact that Antony’s voice might be more versatile than many have assumed.

This was altogether a superb concert though – delicately arranged and delivered. Although it was almost entirely devoid of physicality, there was a sense in which it felt more choreographed than the peculiar dance that preceded it. Not only covering all bases in Antony’s career so far, it also produced some compelling variations on his languidly paced, powerful torch songs.

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