ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS / JOHANNA CONSTANTINE Opera House, Manchester 3 July 2009
An announcement 15 minutes after showtime (and they have the cheek to note “Prompt start” on the Manchester International Festival – of which this show is a part – website) informs us that the evening will begin with a 15-minute solo performance one Johanna Constantine. I suppose you could call Ms Constantine’s art ballet, or maybe interpretative dance, neither of which I have a great deal of experience with. As a wise man once sang, “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand”, but here I go. Johanna is dressed in what looks like silvery-grey body paint, modelling a range of Edward Scissorhands-style talons that must surely be a health and safety violation waiting to happen. She moves, and slowly, to a soundtrack of sub-sub-sub Aphex Twin clatter, managing to cram at least two costume changes into all this non-happening. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, and, unless a suitable explanation is forthcoming, hopefully unlike anything I’m ever going to see in the future.
A few songs in, the curtain obscuring him lifts and he sharpens into something like focus. The visual pyrotechnics become more elaborate as well, streams and beams and points of light strafing the stage as appropriate. Eventually, towards the close of the show, a curtain behind him lifts to reveal the 36-piece Manchester Camerata huddled at the back of the stage. Everything he sings and they play is exquisite, but my command of the man’s back catalogue isn’t complete enough to reel off more than a handful of highlights, which would include the closing “The Crying Light”, “Another World” and perhaps the evening’s most rapturously received moment, “For Today I Am A Boy”. He does rather shatter whatever illusions you may have about the artist, though, when he elects to talk to the audience to give his singing voice an unscheduled break, delivering his rambling, new age-y thoughts about crystals and mountains with a provincial English burr, reminding us that this transgendered diva from Planet Weirdness does, in fact, originate from Chichester.
So, an evening quite unlike any other I’ve experienced under the loose guise of a concert. In the last issue of Amplified, Glen Strachan mused that he couldn’t imagine Antony undertaking stadium tours any time soon. I’d concur, but an opera house seems like a fittingly appropriate environment for his delicate, swooping, swooning music.
ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS The Crying Light (Rough Trade)
Antony And The Johnsons’ third album is his/their most exquisite yet. The arrangements are sparse and sensitive, foregrounding Antony’s piano and chameleon-like voice, creating a fluttering anti-rock that perhaps follows in the Zombies/Left Banke tradition, albeit with more of the baroque and less of the pop.
“Epilepsy Is Dancing” is as delicate as sunlight on a raindrop-dappled spiderweb, the title track an exercise in obsessive devotion. “Dust And Water” is almost acapella, save for a background ambient drone, and “Everglade” sheer orchestrated rapture. The album moves from merely pretty to powerful with “Another World”, a song sung eco-suicide note (and yes, Antony does sing it with a cry in his voice) that’s simultaneously gorgeous and hauntingly tearing. “Aeon” is similarly remarkable, almost bluesy in conception, with Antony’s vocals coming as close to throat-shredding as ever they do, weirdly evoking Janis Joplin in a way.
Lavishly packaged in what must be the first gatefold inner sleeve I’ve encountered, the British 180 gram vinyl pressing is generally fine although marred somewhat by excessive early onset sibilance.