Antony and the Johnsons

When considering the persona of Antony – not the Sussex born Antony Hegarty mind you, but Antony, the being that performed in front of a sold-out audience at Radio City Music Hall on January 26, one can’t help but be overtaken by a strong sense of wonderment. He gives the presence of a mythological creature – an entity that has endured all the pain and anguish of the world’s sins, so much so that it has taken a toll on the actual appearance of the creature. With pale skin, long black scraggily hair, and a garb of ragged white robes, Antony appears to be completely destroyed by the injustices of the world.

The element that brings to mind Greek mythology however, is the juxtaposition of this appearance with the angelic purity of his voice. When Antony sings, you’re drawn to his every syllable, each note sounding like an essential piece to his story. Enhanced by the lavish embellishments of the 60-piece New York Johnsons Orchestra, it was easy to get swept away by last Thursday’s performance of Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights, which was commissioned by the MoMA, for an all out theatrical experience.

Opening in complete darkness, with only Antony’s voice and a piano guiding the audience through the song “Rapture,” the orchestra began to reveal itself musically as the song progressed, leading to an overwhelming crescendo. That formula proved to be even more powerful when they followed with “Christina’s Farm,” where light artist Chris Levine, and lighting designer Paul Normandale, entered their contributions to the piece. Antony sang behind a large screen while an array of green lasers danced across it. As the song reached its coda, the orchestra reached a curiously sinister climax, while the screen slowly rose upward, revealing the singer, but also a gorgeously intricate set design by Carl Robertshaw.

The audience remained captivated by the performance that went beyond an hour before Antony actually spoke a word, being most careful to not break the mood. While the setlist consisted of familiar favorites from all four Antony and the Johnsons albums, applause was only made at the completion of each song, with one exception – Antony’s brilliant minor key deconstruction of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which couldn’t help but get a few hoots and hollers when it started.

The orchestra remained guarded by another large screen that remained several feet behind Antony during the majority of the show. It was not until midway through show highlight, “Cut the World,” that the screen rose which was followed by a standing ovation from the crowd. When Antony finally did speak to introduce and commend the orchestra along with his other visual collaborators, he playfully broke the intense atmosphere by adding, “Well, that’s the bulk of the show, which I’m fucking glad is over.” The audience laughed loudly like a sigh of relief, the mood being so incredibly heavy and emotional up until that point.

The show appropriately ended with the title track from 2009’s The Crying Light, that album being the genesis of what Antony referred to as a “rather ambitious” performance. Ambitiousness is an understatement considering every element that went into it, from the conjunction with the MoMA, to the preciseness of the light show that graced the stage, to the immense orchestral arrangements by Nico Muhly, Maxim Moston, and conductor Rob Moose, but most of all, the power and consistency of Antony’s voice. Only breaking momentarily every so often for a sip of water, his singing remained commanding throughout, never once sounding fatigued. It’s this element that also lends credence to the mythological figure theory. His grace remains otherworldly and is something that doesn’t correspond with the traits of a mere man, but of a god-like siren.

Image by Will Deitz

Full Press Release Here