Antony and the Johnsons

by Thomas Hauner

9 November 2008

Much like the vocal beauty yet visible pain of the castrati struck Renaissance opera goers, Antony’s physical presence and tormenting lyrics augment the simple ethereal beauty that enraptures his fans.

Antony, the eponymous and androgynous creative force behind Antony and the Johnsons, played a sold-out show before an adoring and attentive crowd at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre. Accompanied by a twenty person orchestra (including two members of the Johnsons on cello, Julia Kent and Maxim Moston) Antony looked stoic and untainted standing before them in an—I assume—custom designed white dress featuring tangled balls of yarn draped around his neck.

Never the most physically assured person in the room—his clenched, fidgety fists an early nervous release—Antony became alive and liberated when the music began to absorb him. His direct emotional and physical attachment to his music completely engrossed the audience, creating a respectful aura around his songs. That reverent tension soon eased as Antony immersed the audience in harrowingly beautiful and intimate arrangements of songs like “Cripple and the Starfish” and “Everglade”.

Antony and the Johnsons

16 Oct 2008: Apollo Theatre — New York, NY

But it was precisely Antony’s initial hesitation to open up to the crowd, and the crowd’s respectful reluctance to smother him that illuminates some of the personal struggle narrated, or described, in his songs. It was not unusual to even feel a sense of group consolation at points throughout the evening.

In his songwriting, Antony presents the listener with myriad dichotomies that can either propel the song into deeply personal interpretations, or into naive pastoral melodies. More often than not, though, the former seizes us. Much like the vocal beauty yet visible pain of the castrati struck Renaissance opera goers, Antony’s physical presence and tormenting lyrics augment the simple ethereal beauty that enraptures his fans. Lyrically, his open sexuality and honesty provoke an earnest and connected response from listeners. But a cloud of ambiguity remains, allowing varying meanings and translations. Musically he is less definitive by operating in an asexual vocal range, using lots of vibrato and also by singing from various sexual vantage points.

All of the above confound the sumptuousness of “For Today I am a Boy”.

Though his setlist couldn’t have been longer than 75 minutes, it was rich and sensitive; the orchestra acting as the perfect compliment to his bare yet refined arrangements with the Johnsons. The definitive highlight of the evening was “Another World”, the title track to Antony and the Johnsons newest EP. Beginning with a gentle violin and viola tremor, the thrumming sound grew as Antony sang his depressed realization of a failed earth. As more orchestral voices were added to a growing hostility in the strings, his voice soared in the Apollo’s lofty balconies. More immediately the arrangement was an eerily visceral representation of Antony’s imagery; the dissonant swarm of buzzing strings an approaching apocalypse.

The only song with a definite beat the entire night was “Kiss My Name,” a sprightly bright song with colorful clarinet accents that skipped along in a light rhythm. Antony, showing more movement and gesturing as the night continued, turned to thrust himself in each direction of the orchestra and audience, smiling and physically controlled by the music.

One of the most poignant moments in the evening arrived during “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy.” After the singing the first verse, the orchestra evaporated, time suspended, and Antony had the entire Apollo beguiled by the song’s earnest admission for what seemed like 60 seconds. It was a perfect example of a musical pause being more expressive than, or at least drastically enhancing, the surrounding melody and lyrics.

Near the end of the setlist Antony screamed, “Let’s hit it!” It was a jarring split second as it was the first words spoken above a placid whisper by Antony all night, and as the lights focused out on the auditorium something was up. The orchestra launching into his cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” was what was up. Unlike the plethora of “Toxic” covers, Antony’s “Crazy in Love” was sincere and emotionally invested. That the audience found it amusing and funny was an awkward contrast to his seriousness though. It wasn’t at all clear he was laughing with them.

Erupting with cheers at the end of his set, the crowd quickly started shouting numerous encore requests prompting Antony to joke, “We could do this all night.” He ended up playing a gorgeous “River of Sorrow,” leaving the audience in awe of his performance but also feeling like spoiled brats for only wanting more.

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