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Antony and the Johnsons

Berklee Performance Center

Feb. 22, 2009

I touched Antony Hegarty’s ass. Both hands, both cheeks.

Okay, so this one didn’t really happen. But I did get to see him when he came to Berklee with his band, the Johnsons, last Sunday.

Make no mistake about it, the main draw of Antony’s music is his voice. Filled with idiosyncrasy, it can be grating to the uninitiated — while I was listening to him over winter break, my 14-year-old sister informed me that Antony wouldn’t make it past the tryouts of American Idol. Simon Cowell aside, Antony possesses a stunning, sprawling and painfully beautiful vibrato that can convey emotion unlike any other singer I’ve ever heard. No hyperbole: it is God’s honest truth.

The voice, however, is only the beginning of Antony’s music. Overly understated but powerful arrangements explore deep — and sometimes upsetting — lyrical topics. His breakthrough album I Am a Bird Now explored death, transgenderism, and domestic abuse. On his latest effort, The Crying Light, he focuses on the balance between birth, life, and death. With both orchestration and voice, Antony finds a way to drive these topics into the listener and pull out pure emotion. It sounds wonderful in recorded form, and The Crying Light stands as one of the best albums of 2009 thus far. Just make sure you bring tissues for your first listen.

2005’s I Am a Bird Now won the esteemed Mercury Prize, bringing Antony a boatload of new fans and the fawning adoration of National Public Radio. All of this is great for Antony, and I hope he’s making boatloads of money, but it also means he’s moved onto the theater circuit for his tours. Berklee wasn’t a bad choice, and no complaints can be made about the sound, but it lacked the intimacy that would have complemented Antony’s music perfectly. Plus, it was packed with affluent middle-aged white people who came after they heard him on NPR. It was a strange setting, to say the least. Or maybe I’m just bitter because the balcony was really far away.

First and foremost, Antony is a creature of his adopted New York City. His aesthetic is closely reminiscent of the Warhol era, and not just because of his transgenderism. This was abundantly evident in his choice of opener, the dancer Johanna Constantine. Now let me disclaim the following by saying I am a music aficionado first and foremost, and I know nothing about dance. But man, this was weird. Constantine came out in a ghostly sheet and danced a little, then removed the veil to reveal that she was painted like a skeleton. After pouring fake blood on herself, she waved her arms for a few minutes, then disappeared from the stage for a minute. She came back with a wig and kitchen knives strapped to her knuckles on a glove. Imagine Edward Scissorhands doing the Macarena to Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what was happening. The NPR crowd seemed to lap it up, but I have to wonder if it wasn’t one of those “I have no goddamned clue what just happened so I better say I liked it” type of moments that the “high-cultured” art crowd is wont to have.

Regardless of whatever the hell was going on there, Antony came out and was stunning. The performance opened in near-total darkness and gradually came to light through the first three songs. He drew from all three of his albums, relying most heavily on his newest. I was curious how his songs would lend themselves to a live setting, given only six band members. The arrangements were scaled back but lost none of their power; if anything, they gained from the hushed and intimate feel. And Antony’s voice soared even more gracefully in person as he sat perched at his piano. His renditions of songs like “For Today I Am a Boy,” “Kiss My Name,” and “Everglade” held emotional power unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a concert.

For the gravity of his songs, Antony held a surprisingly aloof stage presence. Incredibly composed, he showed great wit and spontaneity. After an incredible cover of “Crazy in Love” — yes, the Beyoncé song — he paused, and then told the audience, “You can’t top perfection…but you can sidle up next to it!” He then had the stage lights turned while he had us all repeat it after him, in a phony English accent, while throwing our arms up for exclamation. After a short diatribe about how weird it is that Apple has managed to convince the top 30% of cool people in this country all to use its product, he finished, “I just think it’s weird that we’re all beholden to Apple.” An audience member yelled “I’m not!” prompting Antony to look through his purse — on stage — for a door prize for the guy. He ended up giving him part of a fruit basket from off stage, with apples included.

While his wit provided welcome respite, it was his songs that brought us all to Berklee, and he was sure not to disappoint. He saved his most popular song, “Hope There’s Someone,” for the encore. A chilling ballad about the fear of death, it left the audience hushed and contemplative, a perfect ending to a powerful night.