Antony and the Johnsons
For Antony and the Johnsons’ second sold-out night at the venerated Town Hall, the moment that got the loudest audience laughs was when the broad-bodied and bellow-lunged singer and pianist Antony Hegarty mewled a plea of “hoping you’ll page me right now.” It was from the night’s lone cover, of Beyoncé’s 2004 smash hit “Crazy In Love,” stripped of all its Chi-Lites’ sampled brass fanfare, Jay-Z barked bars, and red carpet flashbursts, Hegarty’s vocal quiver diving deep to the manic bundle of nerves at the song’s core.
But the line evoked a chuckle as its starkly modern sentiment and quotidian detail stood out in a music otherwise bereft of such features. If anything, Hegarty and his singular take on the art song seems aloft, far outside of modern times. Lyrically, he trades in ideal (and idealistic) concepts, the intense and undiluted emotions fostered at the furthest extremes of human sentiment, and universal imagery: of birds, the human body (especially the body of a male adolescent), the earth itself. These are also forms of mortal coils, from which Antony seeks release from in songs like “Bird Guhl,” “For Today I Am a Boy,” and “Another World,” his fluttering vocal encapsulating the sadness such escape implies. And his voice was seemingly born to enunciate words like “crystal,” pure,” and “glitter”: at Town Hall, the vowels twinkled like the concepts themselves. For all the organ-gripping intensity that his albums can convey, Hegarty is disarming, self-deprecating, and even funny on-stage, portraying a wicked witch from an old Disney cartoon, or telling of his recent stint touring through the southern United States.
Drawing heavily from his newest album, The Crying Light, Antony and band converged to expertly replicate the crystalline and spacious arrangements of the recording. His obvious vocal powers (lent to everyone from Björk to last year’s disco smash Hercules and Love Affair) are nimble yet strong enough to carry otherwise portentous lines like: “Epilepsy is dancing/ she’s the Christ now departing/ And I’m finding my rhythm/ as I twist in the snow.” All the while, the six piece band -with stellar performances from cellist Julia Kent and guitarist/ reedsman Doug Wieselman–navigated such weighty words with aplomb, catching the rhythmic hiccups of “Epilepsy” and conjuring ghostly drones, skin-prickling textures, and raucous release on “The Crying Light,” “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground,” and “Fists of Love,” respectively, and on “Shake The Devil” all at once.
Though the Beyoncé cover revealed that two such distinct vocally stylists might have had more in common than was initially apparent (such as the incongruent pop song shape bereft of standard verse-chorus-verse, the repeated refrains becoming more frantic incants), a more obvious predecessor to Hegarty is Nina Simone. Her own legendary performance at Town Hall surely on his mind, Hegarty handed out a personal copy of a book on Simone to an audience member seated in the front row as a so-called “door prize.” Of course, Hegarty noted from his piano bench, it was written in French and had a butterfly wing that he himself had epoxied to the title page. Such an off-handed yet precious gift elicited yet another laugh from the audience.–Andy Beta