Last Night: Antony and the Johnsons at Nob Hill Masonic Center

Categories: Last Night

Gretchen Robinette

Antony and the Johnsons
Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009
Nob Hill Masonic Center

Better than:
Old Nina Simone records.

When it comes to Antony Hagerty live, nothing is as you'd expect it. For example, that such a powerfully feminine voice would flow out of such a large man's body. Or that a voice quivering with so much hurt in song could switch into such funny, flippant banter between songs. And that someone with so much praise at his feet (from no less than Lou Reed, among others) could still seem so vulnerable, and could provoke such deep emotions from his fans. But those are just a few of the many contradictions that help Antony and the Johnsons prevail past transitory trends of the moment as he creates a songbook that truly has soul.

Last night, Antony brought his old soul charm to the Nob Hill Masonic Center as one of Noise Pop's opening night performances. He walked on to the stage in near darkness, together with his six member backing band (which included strings and a saxophone)--but by the end of the night, he was bathed in a white spotlight that seemed to further lift his spirit into the rafters.

He's a singer with a voice that's divisive to some. He trills and holds his notes like a proud songbird, drawing out words longer than most of us could hold a breath. But if you're fan, and I count myself in those ranks, that delivery is so expressive and impressive it makes rock 'n' roll singers sound like a bunch of cocky crows in comparison, squawking out their complaints as he really sings.

On record, Antony's voice hasn't lost its Nina Simone resonance, and in person that sonic connection was only amplified. As he sat at the piano, his body lost under the long draping material that flowed over his pants, the singer's physical form disappeared. It no longer made sense to dissect the gender you saw in front of you from the one that came in through your ears.

His songs were  grand and illustrious, and his band wisely took the backseat for most of the set, only encroaching too loudly during a song or two, when the strings sounded too sharp against the curves of Antony's words. He performed songs from his debut, I Am a Bird Now, and the Crying Light, but even his setlist offered curveballs. When he launched in to a cover of "Crazy in Love," the words sounded so torn up inside it was hard to recognize the Beyonce smash hit for a couple beats. The emphasis was more on the "crazy" than the "in love" when he sang lines like "Got me hoping you'll save me right now" and  "When you leave I'm begging you not to go."

But Antony brought many bits of levity to his expressions of anguish. That cover, for example, led into his profession of obsession with Beyonce, specifically the song "Irreplacable." He then gently mocked the audience for requesting songs, asking people not to do that because then he has to imagine the crowd like kids in the supermarket begging for sugar, with their pent up requests bursting inside their minds all night. 

He also told many personal stories between his songs. They weren't long tales, but in their brevity they went deep, exposing the singer's difficulties with being comfortable in his own skin. He joked about his years living in San Francisco often--about begging for change in Union Square, or being a 13-year-old boy who wore so much makeup the bouncers at punk and gay clubs would just let him in because they didn't know what else to do with him. You could feel the sore spots under the stories he'd start telling and then rush through so he didn't have to get into specifics--like his trip to the Mabuhay Gardens that taught him "what a woman has to go through," or being 13 years old at a sketchy sounding club in San Jose where friends took him even though he was "far too  young to be there."

His most evocative story, however, involved his opening act, William Basinski,  an experimental electronica artist who creates "soundscapes for environments." Antony explained that it was in Basinski's Williamsburg loft that he found his first "safe space" and was truly able to develop into who he's become today.

The performer Antony has become today is pretty extraordinary. And if that sounds like gushing, well, he ably provokes such strong reactions in his fans. It's rare you'll find someone so humble (and self-effacing, and vulnerable) in person who reaches into his dark side to create such graceful beauty in his songs. The best music rises out of this sort of emotional conflict--the contrasts that unmask the complications of being an adult who wants to uplift a crowd but can't hide the scars that brought him to the stage in the first place.


By the way:
"Crazy in Love" live here.

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