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An intimate evening in a sold out crowd with Antony

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

February 27, 2009

 

 

Every generation there comes a singer whose voice radically reshapes conventions and standards of vocal beauty. Artists like Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Tom Waits, and Thom Yorke have each, through their own vocal genius, altered the popular music landscape in significant ways. As I sat spellbound in the balcony of New York City’s legendary Town Hall last Thursday night, I couldn’t help but think that another such luminary was being born. And as I listened to the dulcet, flowing sounds—

“You’ve got me looking so crazy right now/Your love’s got me looking so crazy right now.”

No, this publication is not as Beyonce obsessed as the February 6th issue may have led you to believe. Although, whether Antony Hegarty, front man of the band Antony and the Johnsons, chose this cover as a way to weigh in on the Etta James/Beyonce battle of the divas is up for debate. Regardless, the selection was a rare moment of humor in an evening dominated by dark, brooding romantic tunes that explored the inner recesses of the singer’s psyche. In transforming the hip-hop ditty into a plaintive rumination on madness and romantic obsession, the singer seemed to flaunt his talent for individual interpretation.

This moment wasn’t as surprising as it might have been for another “serious” singer-songwriter, because Antony’s music dwells in a liminal realm between joy and despair, shadow and light, birth and decay, male and female. These contradictory forces are apparent not only in his lyrics but in his vocal expression, which is an indescribable blend of quavering falsetto and woeful, vibrato-laden wailing. The transgendered singer channels his personal anguish over love, identity, and mortality into heartrending serenades.

At the start of the performance, the opening of a two-night engagement at the historical venue, Antony mentioned that he felt a special connection “coming home to New York,” where he lived at the beginning of his artistic emergence. I can’t definitely say if that was the reason he connected so well with the audience, but I couldn’t help but feel from his sheer sincerity and vulnerability that we were a small group privileged enough to have direct access to the singer’s consciousness. The half dozen other musicians in the band, including a stellar string section, only helped project Antony’s vision from his tormented heart to our grateful ears.

The music itself challenged conventional categorization, borrowing as much from cabaret nightclub acts as it did from alternative rock. “Epilepsy is Dancing,” from the band’s extraordinary new album, “The Crying Light,” was one of the less ponderous numbers, featuring a delicate melody and a poignant acoustic guitar arrangement. “Shake That Devil” was the only song that might properly be classified as rock, although its propulsive snare beat, call and response verses, and saxophone riffs were hardly radio friendly material. “Aeon” was more representative of Antony’s catalog, supporting his pleading vocals with expansive arpeggiated chords and lush instrumental arrangements.

But no song could have topped the climactic “Fistful of Love,” a sprawling epic of self-discovery and love that builds on a familiar-sounding chord progression into a blossoming catharsis.

If the music didn’t speak for itself, Antony’s face contorted into what can only be described as artistic rapture. It was as though after weathering the sturm and drang of his personal transformation, we were given a moment of life-affirming exaltation.

The problem with writing a review of an Antony and the Johnsons show is that if you haven’t heard Antony’s voice, there’s nothing I can possibly do to convey its gorgeous tone. And if you have heard his voice, you don’t need my blabbering to convince you how extraordinary it is. So do yourself a favor and buy the new album immediately, before he hits the big time, gets corporate, and actually starts touring with Beyonce.

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