Live Music + Gig Reviews

Antony And The Johnsons @ Barbican, London

30 October 2008

Antony And The Johnsons

Antony And The Johnsons

The London Symphony Orchestra have taken their positions. From stage right, on glides a shadowy figure in a flowing toga. Even in the half-light the lofty frame is unmistakable; Antony is in the house. For his first full UK gigs in two years, the 2005 Mercury winner has put together two orchestral nights as a precursor to forthcoming album The Crying Light, with arrangements from Philip Glass collaborator Nico Muhly.

What follows showcases the new album, dusts down his debut and, save for a single nod, omits Antony’s prizewinning second album I Am A Bird Now entirely.

He sings his opening song in silhouetted darkness, forcing the audience to focus on to the orchestra and that spectral, powerful, sublime voice. Indeed it’s not until the third song, Cripple And The Starfish, that enough light shines on him to allow his face to be seen.

He’s recently worked with Hercules And Love Affair, Björk and Lou Reed, but here tonight it’s all about Antony; his songwriting, his dramatically poetic lyrics, his powerful presence and, of course, that voice.

I Am A Bird Now’s only inclusion is For Today I Am A Boy. Rapture, from the debut album, is also dusted down. Muhly’s orchestration, according to the man himself, sets Antony “on a throne of brass, with lots of Wagnerian trombones underneath”. If that sounds tantamount to bombastic and overblown, the reality proves otherwise; Antony’s voice is never overwhelmed.

I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy featured a pause that lasted forever, with not a foot shuffled or a pint slurped. It was a contrast to the evening’s biggest surprise; a touching, bizarrely heart-wrenching cover of Beyoncé‘s Crazy In Love, of all things. Gone are the bombastic horn sample hooks and Jay-Z‘s rap, to be replaced by an emotional depth that leans the word “crazy” away from hands-in-the-air euphoria and closer to the sanitarium. Antony’s hand gestures and head movements, reminiscent of opera divas, are as pronounced as his otherwise still lower body as he takes the material to somewhere darker, deeper, thrillingly unique.

He closed out with River Of Darkness, a song dedicated to “street prostitutes” in his home city New York whose hearts were the kindest and who’d give the shirts off their backs for someone needy. A long, rambling speech about them was respectfully listened to; just when the conductor James Holmes thought he’d finished and prepared to raise his baton, there was more story to tell. But nobody minded; indeed it was the first time he’d spoken at any length all evening.

With no support, the short set concluded by 9pm; there’s not even a chance to tire of his demi-monde ouevre. Particularly as The Crying Light is not due for release until January, a DVD of this show would be most welcome, particularly as the new material seems on first listen to at least equal the best of his back catalogue.

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