Antony and the Johnsons: Live in Vancouver
[February 27, 2009]
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2009, Volume 16, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri March 6, 2009, 04:00 AM CST
It has been a long time since the aging Vogue Theatre hosted a crowd that was as flamboyant and stylish as the one that witnessed Antony and the Johnsons’ performance last Friday night. For the nearly 2,000 people gathered inside the dilapidated, old movie house who were lucky enough to get tickets for the show, the group’s appearance was more than a concert — it was an event of almost religious proportions, one which they had been anticipating for months.
Over the past few years, Antony Hegarty has become something of a legend in Vancouver. Every one of his concerts has sold out very quickly, and the demand for tickets has always far exceeded the supply. Originally brought to town by impresarios from Vancouver’s sizeable gay community, Hegarty has since developed a reputation that has allowed him to cross into the fringes of the musical mainstream. The audience that welcomed him to town on Friday evening was much more diverse than the crowd that had gathered to see him four years ago.
Hegarty’s previous concerts, at the intimate Red Room and St. Andrew’s Wesley Church, were stripped down affairs during which he sat either alone at his piano or simply was accompanied by cello and guitar. This time, he brought a full band with him, one that was capable of recreating the lush and complex music featured on his latest album The Crying Light. Coming onto the stage in near darkness, Hegarty perched at his piano without acknowledging the audience before performing the effort almost in its entirety.
Over the course of the night, Hegarty was backed by a versatile six-piece outfit that played an assortment of instruments, including violin, cello, clarinet, and saxophone as well as drums, electric bass, and guitar. This allowed the bold and challenging compositions that compose The Crying Light to come alive. The gossamer delicacy of the studio versions of songs like Another World, One Dove, and the set’s title track only hinted at the dynamics and breadth of the stunning renditions to which he treated his audience at the Vogue Theatre.
As stirring as the conversations were between the violins and cello toward the end of Another World, and as soaring as the clarinet was during a quiet passage of Aeon, it was Hegarty’s voice that everyone came to hear. His is truly one of the most distinctive voices in popular music, and in a live setting, his range and power was something to behold. Like a cello filtered through a fine, single-malt whiskey, Hegarty’s singing suggested both masculine and feminine textures as he demonstrated control and fluidity, the kinds of which are rarely heard outside the world of opera. Hegarty, however, also expresses muscularity and earthiness, which makes his work appealing to both "serious" and rock ’n‘ roll audiences.
It is hard to imagine another voice as perfectly equipped as Hegarty’s to express the subtlety and inference contained in The Crying Light’s explorations of the fragility of the natural world. When presented in a concert environment, songs that were difficult to appreciate on the album became powerful metaphors for the connection between art and life. By choosing to unveil his challenging, new material as the centerpiece of his performance and by offering it as a unified whole, Hegarty proved that he is a serious artist who cares deeply about his work. As he wound through the endeavor, it was impossible not to be awed by his courage as well as the singularity of his vision. From beginning to end, Hegarty displayed heart and soul in ways that would make him the envy of many soul and gospel artists.
Nevertheless, once he had communicated most of The Crying Light to the crowd, a change came over Hegarty. After nearly an hour on stage — during which time he demonstrated the kind of reticence typically exhibited by Bob Dylan — he relaxed and became positively chatty, thus setting the tone for the second and more unstructured part of the show. As a reward for the audience’s indulgence, he led his band into an over-the-top cover of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, which brought the house down.
His performance of Crazy in Love — and other cover tunes — outlines the divisions in Hegarty’s audience. Some fans initially encountered his work through his performances in more conventional projects, such as his rendition of If It Be Your Will, which appeared in I’m Your Man, a Leonard Cohen tribute film. Along with his revelatory cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door from I’m Not There, the experimental Dylan biopic, Hegarty has demonstrated an ability to reinterpret songs in such a way that they offer more conservative music fans an opportunity to appreciate his talent in a familiar context.
With this in mind, the most unexpected surprise of the night came about midway through the concert when Hegarty pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and said that a friend had requested that he sing a song he had never tried on stage before. In a show filled with truly beautiful performances, the evening’s standout moment came when, without having learned all of the words, Hegarty launched into the traditional I Was Young When I Left Home. As he sang this chestnut — accompanied only by an acoustic guitar — the theater achieved the resonance of a Gothic Cathedral, as Hegarty’s voice soared over the tune’s emotional landscape, giving new and vital life to a tired, old folk cliché.
Within Hegarty’s performance of I Was Young When I Left Home, one could hear the interweaving strands of country, blues, and old-world folk that form the strange alchemy of American music. Though his flowing robes, makeup, and flamboyant approach made him the antithesis of the working-class hero, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Hegarty fearlessly sang this hard-luck tale of impoverished alienation. It’s doubtful that a better performance of this classic tune has ever been recorded. This unexpected moment of minimalist musical perfection was worth the price of admission to the concert.
Bolstered by the crowd’s reaction, Hegarty relaxed even more, revealing another piece of paper. This one contained lyrical snippets that he’d written the day before while relaxing by a river near San Francisco with a friend. Bizarrely enough, Hegarty soon had the crowd singing "You are like a river of milk to me" in convincing harmony before he moved into a section of material from I Am a Bird Now, his breakthrough album. To this end, the concert finished with Hegarty playing to the crowd’s campy expectations as he offered full-blown versions of You Are My Sister and Hope There’s Someone before bidding goodbye to the completely satisfied audience.
Hegarty undeniably is one of the most exciting and talented artists to emerge in the last few years. Unlike many other performers who have found their primary fans within the gay subculture of large, urban centers, he has created opportunities to strut his stuff in front of more mainstream audiences. While it is unlikely that Antony and the Johnsons will ever achieve the superstar status of Beyonce or Dylan, the group’s efforts have reaped their desired effect. Hegarty’s talent refuses to be marginalized or categorized. With his new material, he has demonstrated a range that extends far beyond the effete songs of his first two albums, and he has established himself as a serious composer as well as a stunning vocalist. In the decades to come, those who were lucky enough to have seen Hegarty now will be thankful that they had the good fortune to hear him just as he came into his prime.
Of Further Interest...
The Crying Light is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box