|Antony and the
Carling Academy, London and Mono, Glasgow
The self-titled LP from the New York based ensemble Antony and the Johnsons is without doubt one of my favourite recordings. So I consider myself something of a lucky person to find that my stays in London and Glasgow coincided with solo shows from Antony, the androgynous singer of the Johnsons. The two performances were markedly different.
Since their eponymous debut in 2000 Antony and the Johnsons have been ever so slowly establishing a most impressive reputation. Over the past few years Antony has been taken under the wing of Lou Reed, providing back-up to Lou Reed's US and European tours for The Raven (and an appearance on Jools Holland TV show in the UK) culminating in a solo spot where he takes the lead on the Velvet Underground's 'Candy Says' (a central figure in Antony's pantheon of outre artists, musicians and performers) as documented on Animal Serenade. Steve Buscemi featured Antony in his US independent prison flick Animal Factory, and more recently Antony worked with the artist Charles Atlas and in doing so created a posthumous link with his icon the Australian perfomance artist, musician, and famed clothes designer Leigh Bowery. There was considerable anticipation at the Carling Academy in London even before Antony took the stage. An instant rapport with the audience was attained: a mixture of gay boys, bearded Devendra Banhart fanatics, pierced industrialists and David Tibet, who originally was enraptured by Antony's unique talent issuing the first recordings of the Johnsons on his Durtro imprint. Seated behind a baby grand piano Antony twitches and lets loose with the most beautiful swooping soul voice. His voice quivers with emotion. Comparisons with Nina Simone are rife and if you close your eyes you imagine a black soul singer of indeterminate sex.
Under the hall's soft lights he's affable and chatty retelling stories of their hassles with the ever-so-polite UK customs, informing the audience of his English roots ('I'm from Chichester') or rekindling one-part of a song cycle from his nascent performance days. Antony was the key protagonist of the outsider group Blacklips, who performed all over Manhattan in the early nineties.
The set comprises mainly new songs - from the forthcoming I Am A Bird Now - punctuated with renditions of the masochistic love story 'Cripple and the Starfish' and the heart-stopping 'I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy'. Antony's latest single is a musical setting of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, 'The Lake', first aired on a split CD with Current Ninety Three from St Olaves Church, London. The intimate piano based track accompanied by acoustic guitar is a beautiful setting for Antony's haunting mercurial voice. The bruised pains of 'Fistful of Love' from the much-anticipated and long overdue new album I Am A Bird Now, featuring contributions from Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart and Lou Reed. It's an incredibly intimate show focussed around voice and piano and quite removed from the baroque orchestrations of the self-titled debut, and their ensemble performances.
Two nights later Antony performed at Mono, a Vegan restaurant bar (and home to the fantastic Monorail record shop). If London was stripped down, the Glasgow show is completely no-frills. Antony has to settle for the house lights, a makeshift stage and a keyboard replacing his preferred piano. Antony appears exposed and rather nervous. By the second song he opts for an acoustic version of 'The Lake' accompanied solely by guitar. Standing on stage he appears vulnerable, his body jittering and twitching as each word is wrestled from his oversized effeminate frame. Delivered with such emotion and power in styles that range from soul to gospel, Antony proves he's the most versatile vocalist of twisted dark songs since Marc Almond.
Sierra and Bianca, the sisters behind Coco Rosie, join Antony for one song - 'You Are My Sister' - if I remember correctly. He introduces 'Fistful of Love' (a duet with Lou Reed) from his new EP explaining the cover shot of Candy Darling, a previously unissued photograph of the Warhol superstar captured on her death bed by Peter Hujar. The combination of love, and pain become confused at the hands of Antony. "I always wanted to love to be filled with pain - and bruises", sings Antony on 'Cripple and the Starfish'. Or on 'Fistful Of Love': "I feel your fist. I know it's out of love" putting it on a lyrical par to the Crystal's '(He Hit Me) It Felt Like A Kiss'. Only weeks earlier, Baby Dee and William Basinski, two players on Antony's self titled debut performed in Glasgow alongside Current 93 as part of the groundbreaking Instal festival but tonight outside of the Lou Reed connection it seems Antony is something of an unknown quantity. It doesn't matter. Even if this British born New Yorker traverses in a world of transvestites and transexuals, on stage tonight he doesn't opt for gay cabaret. Antony's songs are about being human, with themes that are universal. Anyone who has ever had a heart broken can share in the passionate conviction of his soulful voice as he tells of the devastating pains of love.
Antony and the Johnsons - www.antonyandthejohnsons.com
All Photographs: Copyright Compulsion online not for reproduction without permission.