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Heavenly host

Antony and the Johnsons, live at Berklee Performance Center, February 22, 2009
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  February 26, 2009

Antony and The Johnsons at BPC

Perhaps it's due to the delicate gentility of his demeanor (somewhere between wan and fey — or saintly, even), or the soft warble of his signature trill (somewhere between Nina Simone and Boy George — or Odetta, even), but Antony Hegarty tends to be described in the airiest of terms: æthereal, otherworldly, spellbinding, haunting. Although it'd be wrong to fault these adjectives for accuracy — he does emit a glow of otherness — they don't prepare showgoers for what a ham he can be.

With all the austerity that swirls so naturally around Antony's increasingly anticipated body of work, it's easy to forget that he ascended from the gory gender-bending hypercamp antics of the underground cabaret scene of the Lower East Side in the early '90s. Years before he was radiating light, he was flinging buckets of fake jizz.

So the opening performance by his long-time collaborator (and founder, with Antony, of the Blacklips drag theater troupe in 1992), Johanna Constantine, was either an effective recalibration of audience expectations or a souvenir scrap of a long-forgotten context, depending on how you looked at it. Teetering on platform heels at the center of the stage, draped in long ill-cut veils of white gauzy fabrics, and painted head-to-toe in sinuous streaks of ghostly white and skeletal grays, Constantine made slow, deliberate movements (through a soundtrack of detached electronic clangs and heaves of soft noise) that recalled the butoh of Antony's artistic hero (and Crying Light cover star) Kazuo Ohno.

Johanna Constantine

At times, she stood stonefaced, clawing at the air before her; others, she winced while squatting low and grinding her feet, as though to squelch an ember. Between dances, she'd drift stage right to pour gobs of fake blood (or real ink?) over her body, and as it ran down her arms and legs in little rivulets, it was as though she were moving from angel to ghost to corpse. It could be difficult to reconcile the delicacy of the performance with the violence of the spectacle. When she closed on a comparatively goofy note (swatting stiffly to the lurching crescendos of Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King"), it was a reminder to take all of this with a grain of salt — or a dot of E.

Antony, too, made regularly scheduled trips to the lighter side during his two-hour performance, which drew liberally from his entire catalogue, though with welcome emphasis on songs from The Crying Light. Realized on record, his voice guides these songs through their many dimly lit chambers. But performed live and augmented by a crack sextet of players — there was the versatile woodwind and guitar work of Douglas Wieselman ("If you feel something," Antony said at one point, "it's probably because he's playing it"), and Jeff Langston's crucial and unassuming talents on bass — the songs achieved a balance of refinement and expansiveness that might be the closest thing to perfection I've seen on a stage in years.

Antony and The Johnsons

"You can't top perfection," Antony said with an arch pause (right after a jarringly tense and pathological interpretation of Beyoncû's "Crazy in Love"), "but you can sidle up next to it." Delighted with the laughs this line won, he led the audience through several group recitations of it for practice, the third round of which even included a choreographed upward fling of the arms at the end. For a man who had to sit in silence for a full minute before attaining the emotional condition necessary to play "Twilight," he's good for some laughs: cracking on Apple computers, engaging zealous devotees in the dark (heckler: "Can I put my hands on you, Antony?" Antony: "I have to question your motives"), snatching a fruit basket from his green room and awarding it as a door prize to a showgoer who declared freedom from Internet slavery. A solid 20 minutes of banter seemed only a little excessive; if anything, it melted some of the mystery through which so much of what he does tends to be filtered.

Which isn't to say the show wasn't heavy — it was. At times, the hall was still enough to hear his lips part around a syllable; at others, his voice swept the whole room up in its arms. Throughout, it was clear that Antony is enough of a showman to give everything he has to each song, but also enough of a host to know when to temper the intensity. When the house lights finally came up at the finale (a fan-relieving encore performance of "Hope There's Someone"), people quietly filled the aisles, dragging their sweater sleeves over their tear tracks. Crying light indeed.

Related: A voice from on high, Review: Antony and the Johnsons' The Crying Light, Pure genius, More more >
  Topics: Live Reviews , Antony and the Johnsons, Berklee Performance Center, The Crying Light,  More more >
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