Last Night: Antony and the Johnsons Deliver the Perfect Music for the Times at Disney Hall
It did feel like a Moment, like the crowd last night was part of something Big and Important, an event which in better times with less distraction and attention deficiencies might even have been a Landmark. For reasons perhaps too obvious to state, the reception that Antony Hegarty was given in one of the West Coast’s premiere concert halls was a thrill. The jubilant ovation upon his arrival in a floor length white silk-satin dress; the roar of enthusiasm he received after the new “Christina’s Farm,” the second song of the night, when the packed hall seemed to realize all at once that this musical event at this particular time was exactly the right offering, the perfect prescription for one of the tensest Octobers in of any of our lifetimes – this is what the crowd seemed to crave. What we needed was pure, reverent silence filled with harmony and gentle emotion. We needed freedom. We needed beauty.
Backed by a nineteen piece orchestra, along with members of Hegarty’s longtime backing band The Johnsons, the singer with the smoky Nina Simone tone and even-tempered phrasing opened with a song from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Originally sung by Julee Cruise, Antony and the orchestra inverted Angelo Badalamenti’s arrangement, turned his romantic strings and synths into something darker and more menacing. In Lynch’s film, Cruise sings it as innocents Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern share their first kiss on a well-lit dancefloor. At the Disney, Hegarty performed it while standing alone in silhouette, the light illuminating the orchestra while the singer, who looked like an opera diva, pushed out the words in pure darkness:
Sometimes a wind blows
And you and I
In a darkness
And the mysteries
In the darkness, with Antony's body nothing but a shadow, it was his voice that greeted us. The body didn't matter. He could have been a she, a s/he or a ghost. It was about the voice, even if the most amazing moment occurred without it, during the fifth song, "(I Fell in Love with a) Dead Boy." Between the two verses, the music stopped, and Antony paused. With the silence -- the pure, reverential kind reserved for church services and morgues -- came submission, and then absence. Quiet, for one beat, then two, then three, then more. The audience, enrapt, uttered absolutely nothing, emitted not even a cough, entered into an agreement that there would be not a peep until Antony gave us permission. I feel like we'd still be sitting there in stone silence right now if Antony hadn't eventually, and with perfect grace, confessed: "I fell in love with you/Now you're my one and only" while the orchestra opened back up and we all finally exhaled.
The crowd lapped it up, was in pure bliss mode. Hegarty offered songs from throughout his career (two albums and a handful of EPs), though concentrated on new compositions from his recently released "Another World" EP and his forthcoming album, The Crying Light. The co-star of the night (along with conductor and longtime collaborator Rob Moose) was the absent Nico Muhly, whose dynamic arrangements felt neither sappy nor over-thought. His engaging work for string, woodwind, brass and percussion was the perfect bed for Hegarty's brushed-chrome tone. Also bringing his A-game was pianist Thomas Bartlett, who floored a small crowd at the Hotel Cafe a few months back when he and Muhly performed their solo work. With Antony, Bartlett's touch was gentle but precise.
Toward the end of the show, Hegarty began singing a song with the lyrics, "I look and stare so deep in your eyes/I touch on you more and more every time," and a few queens started to giggle. As he continued on -- "When you leave I'm beggin' you not to go/Call your name two, three times in a row" -- more people started mumbling and laughing until finally he came upon the verse: "Got me lookin' so crazy right now/Your love's got me lookin' so crazy right now" and everyone was in on the "joke" that he was doing Beyonce's "Crazy in Love."
Except it wasn't really a joke. Absent the booming brass and beat, the song became something else: a little reminder that in the right hands and with the right generosity, a song can be reborn, remade -- like a boy into a woman -- and under the right circumstances and with the purest of spirits can find itself/himself/herself on stage at the concert hall, bringing beauty in a time of tense (and hopeful) anticipation.
Antony and the Johnsons, Walt Disney Concert Hall, October 14, 2008.
1. Mysteries of Love (Julee Cruise cover)
2. Christina's Farm (new song)
3. Cripple and the Starfish
4. For Today I Am a Boy
5. (I Fell In Love With A) Dead Boy
6. Kiss My name (new)
7. Everglade (new)
9. Ghost (new)
10. Another World (new ep)
11. Crazy in Love (Beyonce cover)
12. Everything is New
13. Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground (new)
14. River of Sorrow
Editor's Note: This piece original said that the orchestra consisted of members of the LA Philharmonic. This, in fact, was not the case, so we deleted the reference. Apologies for the mis-identificaton.