all photos: Irfan Khalil
all words: Christina Chaconas
Antony and the Johnsons have been around since 2000, but it wasn’t until their release of I am a Bird Now in 2005 that they began receiving heavy attention and accolades from the music industry. A catalyst for the creative mind of Antony Hegarty, the bands music explores sexuality, love, loss, maturity and birth. I distinctly remember when I first heard them. It was 2005 and I had attained a lot of Icelandic friends. I was in Reykjavik. My friends were driving me somewhere and we were listening to the radio. Suddenly, this haunting voice comes over the radio. I ask who it was and they all chime in ” Antony and the Johnsons, haven’t you heard of them?!!?!” like it was nothing. The newest album The Crying Light was recently released. Clearly Icelandic radio stations are a step ahead. I have yet to hear them on any radio stations in my car here but that just adds to the mystique.
A full house that ran the gamut from freakishly thin hipsters to scary goths with prom dress and plugs to classy 90 year old grandma has stuffed themselves in pews just to see Antony on Tuesday. Seriously, we were packed like sardines in there. On stage I could make out a grand piano, a violin, an acoustic guitar, drums and a cello which will later be accompanied by an electric guitar, a clarinet and a saxophone! We sit in anticipation for several minutes. I girl who had attended a lecture upstairs came and sat next to me. She seemed to be familiar with the staff but had no idea who the musicians were. She spoke to at least 4 different people that said the exact same thing “The music is so pretty, his voice is …..unique, strange but I really like it.” I guess that’s as good as any introduction to what his vocal range can achieve.
The band of 7 meekly emerges from the back to thunderous applause. The band is smartly dressed and reserved. Antony walks right by me. He looks shy, timid, a bit giggly, his hair is dishevelled, he has a purse across he shoulders and a drink (water, coffee? I don’t know) in his hand. He takes his seat behind the piano, purposely (?) the least lit spot in the house. He is practically bathed in the shadows.
If there is a way to describe this performance in a single phrase it would be “incredibly sad, yet profoundly uplifting”. His music, his vocals, his appearance and basically his whole persona occupy the amorphous area between feminine and masculine. On one song he has the wavering, pouty voice of a bygone starlet while on others he has a more dynamic, forceful aura.
His first ever performance in DC, Antony, mixed songs from the new album with older favourites. From the new album he performed “Epilepsy is dancing” a jouyously loud and happy song with a rhythmic crescendo and an abrupt stop; “Kiss My Name “a violin heavy dynamic tune with guitar riffs that reminded me of a western. A stomping intense drum beat silenced the stage mid song to reveal a more masculine, booming voice from Antony. “One Dove” began with an onerous, urgent symbol twitch. Antony had an enraptured look on his face, transfixed in the song and the moment while a lonely saxophone solo accompanied. “Shake that Devil” ( from the EP) started off with an eerie, noisy drone sound. Then the drum beat picked up, Antony voices became playful and a soulful saxophone created a joyful retro explosion. Unlike more sombre tone of other songs, this one was upbeat, even danceable
From I am a Bird, ” For Today I am a Boy” echoed through the hall like a baby coming out of a womb- victorious, momentous, new. A clarinet added a bit of childlike quality to the otherwise loud drums “Another World” quivering violin lasted an eternity of anticipation until the soft, melancholy piano brought the piece together. The heartfelt orchestration, often gave the songs a cinematic quality- like you were watching a sorrowful scene in a movie. Yet, there is always a twinge of hope.
Mid way through his performance he commented on an interview he recently did. The reporter asked him “What would you do if you were world leader?” He proceeds to tell us his plan of reversing the gender of everyone in power. “We could try it for three months, like inside out day…it only seems fair” he stated matter-of-factly. In a talkative mood, despite his apparent shyness, he remarked on the Popes recent incident with a Holocaust denier. “Perhaps the Pope has a food allergy. He has serious circles under his eyes and sometimes food can make you say crazy things. Remember the Twinkie defence?”. A bit of levity for an otherwise harrowing topic brought a smile to Antony’s face. And you know? That’s what he best represents: making sad things beautiful.
The performance was recorded for future broadcast by NPR.
** I missed the last couple songs.