Thursday, February 12, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

Someone as unwilling as me to leave the house for much of anything other than groceries isn't likely to attend many concerts, even performances I want to see. So it should hardly be surprising that I go kicking and screaming when dragged to some sort of show by someone I've never even heard of.

My wife, Diane, had been watching David Letterman one night and was immediately drawn to an appearance of Antony and The Johnsons. This moved her enough to pick up the group's CD, I Am A Bird Now, whose cover features a startling image of Candy Darling on her deathbed. When Diane found out that Antony and the Johnsons was coming to Washington, DC's historic Sixth & I synagogue, she immediately got two tickets. No questions asked. I was going. "Just trust me," is all she said.

"You Are My Sister," from the David Letterman show.

I had no idea what to expect but was startled by this transgendered performer much more than I ever thought I would be. Singers and pop music usually don't appeal to me. But Antony Hegarty is a singer like no other and his music is anything but poppy. I'm not sure I possess the words to do justice to Antony's singing or even to his music, but it's absolutely arresting and ultimately enveloping.

The synagogue itself is a beautiful place and an unbelievably perfect setting for a concert, especially for the almost painful intimacy of the music that I experienced. Antony's music seems to require a beautiful setting such as this, with no props or phony staging; naked and bare, lovely and human.

I was immediately drawn in by the very first song, though I don't know what it was, even though the stage was so oddly lit that the star was completely in the dark throughout the entire number (strange considering we were told the event was being filmed).

The video for the haunting "Another World."

Even more notably, I was struck by the make up of the band: piano (Antony Hegarty), electric bass (Jeff Langston), violin (Maxim Moston), cello (Julia Kent), a violinist/guitarist (Rob Moose), a drummer/percussionist (Parker Kindred) and a guitarist/saxist/clarinetist (Doug Wieselman). With this unique line-up, things had to be artistic and compelling. And, of course, they were.

The lights eventually came up a bit to the point of candlelight to slightly reveal the main attraction, who peppered his set with occasionally oblique commentary. It was kind of like being in the guy's living room, cozy, warm and friendly. He even talked "with" several people in the house. The audience seemed to recognize many of the songs that were all completely new to me; cheering when tunes kicked off, calling for other songs that the group hadn't yet played.

By the middle of the set, Antony launched into "Another World" (the title track to an EP issued last fall) and I was transfixed. This hymn-like ode to suicide is quietly captivating, carried along by the consistent drone of the strings delivering one long sustained discordant chord. Another song whose title I didn't know followed and I remained engrossed. Then the sensationally rousing "Shake The Devil" came right after that.

One of the evening's best performances was the moving, chill-inducing "Fistful Of Love" (from I Am A Bird Now), which - if I recall correctly - boasted an electric (in all senses of the word) solo of gut-wrenching, wailing blues from Wieselman, who easily garnered the audience's loudest ovation until the very end (despite working the crowd into an elated frenzy, Antony only offered one encore, much to the disappointment of everyone there).

"Epilepsy Is Dancing," the newest single.

While much of the music heard that chilly Tuesday night last week came from Antony and The Johnson's newest disc, The Crying Light, and the recent Another World EP, I also recognize a fair number of pieces I've since heard that appear on I Am A Bird Now, including "Hope There's Someone," "For Today I Am A Boy," "Man Is The Baby" and the almost anthem-like "You Are My Sister" (performed on Letterman).

Antony's music is so profoundly personal and unquestionably unique that it cannot be easily forgotten once it's experienced. It feels almost as if it's an internal soundtrack to pain and loneliness, something that certainly touched me right away and has haunted me ever since. But it's never abstract or purposely strange, something that could provoke but become forgotten almost immediately. I've heard it described as "otherworldly" but probably by people who don't recognize the vast emptiness of the world within. It's the sound of one man's - or woman's - soul.

I can't think of too many other performers that make so immediate and indelible impression as Antony and the Johnsons made on me. Only Laurie Anderson springs to mind as an artist who mixes the profound so perfectly with what's universal.

Another very striking impression one gets is the collaborative partnership each member of this band shares with one another. Each player listens to the other, supports each other and helps drive one another. Each is rapt within the music, animated and dedicated to it and each - particularly percussionist Kindred, who, I think, provides the very lifeblood of the band - not only buys into Antony's unique musical vision but contributes so profoundly to it as to bring it vividly to life.

1 comment:

Douglas Payne said...

The video of this concert was apparently posted at NPR here: