It’s doubtful that the Hammersmith Apollo has ever seen anything quite like the support act that takes to the stage prior to Antony And The Johnsons.
Johanna Constantine, whose artwork is featured on the headliners’ new album The Crying Light, glides menacingly onto the stage, draped in a gauze fabric and covered in what looks like blood. Electronic music gurgles and drones behind her as she proceeds to form very pronounced and studied shapes. She then picks up two long sticks and begins spinning them round. This lasts for 10 long minutes and is then replaced by Constantine bedecked in some kind of twig head dress, tapping out the rhythm of In The Hall Of The Mountain King.
It’s rather preposterous and, as Constantine strides offstage, the crowd seem unsettled, baffled and restless (in fact, in Brighton, the performance was met with such antipathy that a rude outburst of “rubbish” was cheered rather than jeered). Luckily, Antony And The Johnsons take their places onstage immediately afterwards, Hegarty himself striding into the dark to take his seat at his piano. This darkness continues throughout Where Is My Power, a b-side from recent single Epilepsy Is Dancing. Given the fact the band won the Mercury Music Prize for their second album, I Am A Bird Now, and that Hegarty has worked with everyone from Björk to Hercules And Love Affair since, it’s remarkable just how, well, remarkable Hegarty’s voice remains. As the first few notes leave his mouth the crowd are automatically enraptured, as if hearing him sing for the first time.
From there the mood of chin-stroking pretension that Constantine managed to create is lifted as Hegarty and the band begin to enjoy themselves (at one point Hegarty turns to the crowd and camply asks “why so serious?”). There follows a trio of songs from this year’s brilliant The Crying Light album, including a re-worked Epilepsy Is Dancing and a mournful, haunting One Dove, it’s stately piano figure augmented by that lovely saxophone flourish. The first real cheer of the evening greets the arrival of the first of three songs from I Am A Bird Now, the urgent For Today I Am A Boy. Later, Fistful Of Love is extended out into a passionate, almost primal chant that sees Hegarty hammering at the piano, chanting “I know it’s out of love”.
Other highlights include the Nico Muhly-scored Everglade, a song so sumptuous and stirring that it sounds as beautiful tonight as it did at the Barbican at the beginning of the year accompanied by a symphonic orchestra. Early single Fell In Love With A Dead Boy, is similarly stunning, and features a thrilling moment when the band stops suddenly mid-song and, for 30 seconds, the venue is completely silent. It’s testament to the five men and women who make up The Johnsons that the transition from record to live setting is a seamless one, each song either slightly re-worked or revitalised (Aeon and Kiss My Name in particular are a revelation live, their slightly anaemic studio versions fleshed out on stage).
They are also a patient bunch and need to be because when Hegarty starts to ramble, there’s nothing you can do to stop him. Whilst introducing Hope Mountain he launches into a 10 minute speech that takes in everything from religion to gender politics to Bob Dylan (Hegarty’s no fan of the film He Wasn’t There it seems). Luckily, he’s funny and self-deprecating as opposed to preaching or verbose, and as soon as the sermon ends and that voice rears up again the mood is altered immediately.
Following a re-energised Aeon, the band leave to a standing ovation before returning for a two-song encore. The sweeping, gloriously over-the-top Cripple And The Starfish (from their self-titled debut) is first up, followed by the song that probably brought most of the people here tonight, the sublime Hope There’s Someone. Alone at the piano with a single spotlight, Hegarty’s rich, impassioned voice fills the cavernous hall and the tale of the loneliness of death becomes almost hymnal. With that the band stand for a final bow before Hegarty wonders off, collecting a small satchel from behind his piano on the way, as if another day’s work were over.