Antony and the Johnsons @ Birmingham Symphony Hall – 22nd May 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

Tonight’s outing is a curiously civilised affair, being at the Symphony Hall and all. However, the setting is a perfect fit for an artist such as Antony Hegarty. As we were being ushered to our seats, the announcement came over the tannoy that ‘this evening’s performance will begin in ten minutes, with a short opening act before Antony and the Johnsons take the stage…there will be no interval, please ensure you are seated’; predictably this caused a queue for the toilets/bar of near-epic proportions but eventually everyone was in and hushed and the lights dropped. The opening act was unusual and strangely affecting – and try as I might I can’t find any details about her, but basically it was a piece of performance art featuring – well, as I interpreted it, anyway – a woman who changes into a bird. Dramatically lit and impressively scored with an odd ambient soundtrack, it was weird and interesting (and apparently not to everyone’s taste, as the grumbly people behind me made quite clear, but never mind).

Antony and the Johnsons

Anyway following that, Antony and the Johnsons took to the stage. With the lights barely turned up far enough to make him out at the piano, the audience was forced to concentrate on the music, which under the circumstances was a very good thing indeed. A heartstoppingly beautiful rendition of Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground, enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, induced a tangible ripple of excitement through the audience. His voice is unusual and beautiful enough in its recorded state, but actually hearing him perform live is a whole other experience. The lights did eventually begin to creep up during the performance, but never enough to detract from the carefully intimate atmosphere.

Antony and the JohnsonsAntony and the Johnsons

It is difficult to pick out the high points from an evening that was, really, one long high point. The performance lasted for about two hours and felt like two minutes; they played the majority of the new album The Crying Light, as well as a selection from I Am A Bird Now and the Another World ep, released last year. Balancing a heartwrenching performance of I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy were the frequent and witty ramblings of a performer who obviously likes talking to his audience; he is, surprisingly enough amongst all these very profound and moving songs, a very funny man and it was a genuine pleasure to listen to his anecdotes about the hotel they stayed in last time, or – as preceeding Hope Mountain – his stories about dreams. Well, I found it all very interesting anyway and to be honest if you’ve got ears you would have enjoyed this performance. The beautiful arrangements and playing from the Johnsons (who all stepped out of their collective label and introduced themselves individually) were brilliant, and although I keep returning to it – it’s that voice. Certainly the Symphony Hall, with its acoustics, was the place to go for this kind of music.

Antony and the Johnsons

Tonight’s encore was, of course, Hope There’s Someone – which Antony began, inducing by turn tears and squeaks of excitement, only to stop after a couple of lines and say, you know, isn’t it morbid…? You can’t help but feel that he‘s having a great time and enjoys connecting with his audience, which in turn makes it almost impossible not to like him. And as for the music tonight…well, I am a huge fan anyway but like I said earlier, you’d honestly have to be deaf and have no soul not to have been moved, and touched, and – in some parts – honestly quite tickled by the performances of Antony and the Johnsons tonight. The Crying Light is out now and available on iTunes, etc; his tour continues and there are whispers that there will be full-symphony performances later on in the year, beginning at the Manchester Festival. All I can say to that is that it’ll be well worth going if you get chance – absolutely remarkable.

Antony and the Johnsons

Review – Gill Duckett
Photos – Sophie Stern

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2 thoughts on “Antony and the Johnsons @ Birmingham Symphony Hall – 22nd May 2009

  1. It was stunning as you say, and Antony came over as a warm, witty and funny human being. In contrast to some of his songs, he was genuinely an uplifting soul. I really expected him to be a dour Dylan-esque figure on stage, but he was the total opposite- really giving and full of joy. Great review.

  2. Saw Antony last night at the Manchester Opera House, and yes the 15 mins of “performance art” at the beginning is unusual, I cannot say that I fully understood it! Antony’s voice was pitch perfect and beautiful as ever, and the lighting excellent, but we felt personally that the full symphony orchestra should have been included from the very beginning of the concert, they were only unveiled right near the end, and to great applause. He stood alone throughout, no piano, no Johnsons, just Antony. And unfortunately we didn’t get an encore, so very much different to the Birmingham show I feel.

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