A night with Antony & the Johnsons turned out to be everything you could hope for: haunting, understated, and rapturous. The Red Room was an excellent choice of venue (certainly superior to the Media Club, where the show had previously been booked). It was intimate and elegant, though if, like me, you didn’t get a seat in the pit, you probably spent most of the show looking for a place to stand where you could actually see. In person, Antony is a physically imposing figure (though far from obese, as some misanthropes have labelled him), tall and broad-shouldered with a face half wounded cherub, half smiling Buddha, framed by a feminine cascade of straight black hair. His appearance, however, striking as it is, can’t compare to the otherworldly perfection of his androgynous voice.
He played all of his best songs: “The Lake,” “Cripple and the Starfish,” “River of Sorrow,” and almost everything from I Am A Bird Now. Unbelievably, he sounds even better in person than on record. He seems to draw his rich, breathy vibrato from some organ between the heart, throat, and lungs that normal humans don’t possess.
Antony’s songs evoke an extraordinary amount of emotion, so intense as to break down barriers between pain and pleasure, memory and reality, and even accepted conventions of propriety, but he’s no exhibitionist. Antony is so generous with his expressionism that the feelings in his music seem to have belonged to you all along, a profoundly personal experience that accounts for rapt response of the crowd. The silence that saturated the venue during his performance was total; it was as if everyone was holding their breath. The humming of the bar fridges was actually audible.
Antony’s accompaniment was also minimal, as promised, with only Rob Moose on guitar and occasional violin, and Julia Kent (formerly of Rasputina) on cello, both extremely tasteful. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the show was the diversity and devotion of the audience: people of all ages and persuasions were captivated by Antony’s music. Clearly, he’s come a long way from his days as an unheralded drag singer in the New York gay scene (which he claims never embraced him in the first place), and far from the transgressive spectacle you might expect from a gender-bending performer in love with Warhol’s Factory and embraced by the art elite (he played at the Whitney Biennial last year). Antony’s soul music is accessible to all.