Antony & the Johnsons: Swanlights
26 Jan 2012: Radio City Music Hall New York
When Antony Hegarty finally spoke at the outset of his awe-inspiring Swanlights performance at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall on January 26th, his first words were, “Well that’s the bulk of the show over; I’m so fucking glad!”. Any conscious person in attendance would have been a fool to disagree. The rapt state of the Swanlights spectators all but enhanced the power of Antony’s performance. Although the hour and a half long piece—performed with the 60-piece Johnsons Orchestra before a sold-out audience—appeared seamless, the handiwork, ambition, and planning that went into the production was deeply felt.
Swanlights was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, a fact which hardly surprised as the event unfolded. The show was prefaced by a dancer who tiptoed from behind the curtain and fanned her arms in graceful synchronicity to the rise and fall of a few concealed string players. Before Antony even took the stage, his statement of Swanlights being “a meditation on light, nature, and femininity” had already been well articulated.
After the dancer’s exit, lights were dimmed and Antony’s oft-praised singing voice filled the concert hall. The first few songs that Antony set the pace with—including opener “Rapture” from Antony & the Johnsons self-titled release and “For Today I am a Boy” from breakthrough I am a Bird Now—were performed with the singer shrouded in blackness. Although this effect helped to emphasize the arresting quality of Antony’s voice, it was also something of a siren’s song, lulling some of the less alert audience members into a near slumber.
Soon enough, stage lights were raised and the meat of the show was laid before us. An early highlight soon arrived in the form of Antony’s cover of “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce. In no mean feat, this pop jam was transformed into a gut-wrenching plaint of pure yearning and instantly made uncoverable by anyone else. It was around this point in the performance when strange, beautiful things began taking place behind Antony: a very restrained laser light show created abstractions on the screen between Antony and the still invisible orchestra. The lasers eventually migrated to the ceiling, where it looked as though a melodic science experiment was taking place. By being dressed all in white, Antony took on an air of the sci-fi himself, with vibrant greens and violets making him appear to be a hologram singing to us with a yet-to-be-transported orchestra not too far behind.
During the final notes of The Crying Light’s “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground,” the screen rose and the orchestra, led by composer Robert Moose, was revealed. After Antony’s aforementioned expression of relief and introductions of the players, two final songs were performed: “Salt Silver Oxygen” which was composed by the singer and contemporary classical composer (and one of the performance’s arrangers) Nico Muhly and which appeared on the Swanlights album, and “The Crying Light” from the 2009 album of the same name. Both songs worked as subtle and inspiring send-offs, but the audience wanted more. After some more thank yous and perhaps a few bows from Antony, the vast majority of the crowd rose to their feet for an ecstatic standing ovation. This stance continued for a good five minutes or so and acted as a unanimous request for an encore. Even the inevitable raising of houselights failed to dissolve the tenacity of a few obstinate attendees.
Just as the Swanlights performance provided a good cross-section of Antony’s discography, the audience also lacked uniformity, with young men in suits mingling with grizzled dudes in baseball caps mingling with young professional females and their significant others. This diverse showing illustrated Antony’s ability to move all music fans, regardless of age or orientation.
Performances of such artistic aspirations are difficult to carry off. Much assurance and time is needed to ensure that they are worth their one-off aspect. With Swanlights, Antony Hegarty proved that executing such a task can—in the right hands—appear even easier than opening a door. No matter the heartbreak, comfort, or general beauty Antony’s songs inspire, it was inevitable that each and every Radio City attendee felt something. Thank a higher power, then, that Antony is a singular artist; if every singer-songwriter were to undertake similar projects, Swanlights would have not have been nearly as special.