You know when you’re at a premium-rated gig when rock-scribes of yore are in attendance. Antony Hegarty and his various Johnsons have garnered significant ‘thumbs-up’ from all quarters for their second album I Am A Bird Now, one of the rare occasions when something new has been hewn from rock’s over-tilled fields of inspiration.
Even if Paul Morley, the one-time chronicler of The New Pop and TV’s talking-head for hire, was steadily avoiding the curious gazes of many (alright, me then), the fact that he, amongst other recognisable faces, was here was testimony to the impact of this strange, and yes, beautiful new thing.
As the be-wigged Hegarty walked modestly to his piano-seat there was the kind of reaction afforded to returning conquering heroes, as if Antony had come back battle-weary from the trans-gender frontiers declaring the world a safe place for man-dresses at last. A large man, Hegarty’s Divine-esque days as a curiously illuminated baldie now behind him in favour of raven tresses. Surely inadvertantly, Hegarty now resembles a besuited Kevin Shields, though I Am A Bird Now are hardly songs of the loveless.
Five Johnsons are in attendance and are prepared to echo the hushed reverence of the audience. Delicate accompaniments are the order of the day, and chamber treatments are afforded to all the pieces, making for a much quieter sound than one would expect.
There are moments, particularly when Antony’s oddly-affecting quaver negotiates the sensitive nerve-endings of songs like My Lady Story and For Today I Am A Bouy when the exquisite timing and phrasing lives up to expectations. When the Johnsons wrap themselves like friendly ghosts around the secular holiness of You Are My Sister, you could swear that the band float.
Besides witnessing levitation, the evening’s surprise package comes in the diminutive, and slightly ravaged looking form of Marc Almond, by all reports, his first on-stage appearance since his motorcycle accident (‘a truly humbling and life-changing experience’). A standing ovation is genuinely heartfelt. Despite the demands of one fan, Almond surges not into Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, but into a glorious River Of Sorrow, from Antony’s first, folkier, album.
This folkier ambience is characteristic of the evening. To its detriment, no space is given to the Almond-inspired Fistful Of Love, leaving the set a trifle one-paced. Perhaps admirably, Hegarty seems keen to respects to other inspirations – a vibrant reading Of Current 93‘s Soft Black Stars justifies the selection though it could be said that a run-through of the Velvet Underground‘s Candy Says appears as if by rote.
The crowd erupted in a rehearsed kind of ovation. Antony and the Johnsons were moving, but this performance neglected the rousing vistas suggested by I Am A Bird Now. Good, but a pedestal away from great.