Sydney Festival and Melbourne concerts: Antony and the Johnsons with CocoRosie
N.B. If you’ve landed on this page looking for a review of Lou Reed’s January 2007 concert performances of Berlin, with Antony and Sharon Jones, click here.
It’s easy to understate just how brilliant Antony’s first performances in Australia were, last January. Antony and his violinist from the Johnsons, Maxim Moston, replaced Laurie Anderson for the Hal Willner-produced Leonard Cohen tribute concerts, Came So Far For Beauty.
Antony even sang the same songs that Laurie Anderson had sung under the stars -- at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park -- nineteen months to the day earlier: ‘The Guests’ (from Cohen’s 1979 set Recent Songs) and ‘If It Be Your Will’ (Various Positions, 1984).
Despite being a virtual unknown here, despite being in the company of luminaries from various generations and genres, Antony ended the concert with the kind of ovation that headline acts ought to have. On home turf, Nick Cave initially had that adulation all to himself. We had come so far, it seemed, to worship at the altar of The Bad Seed himself.
Now, Australian audiences are anything but fickle, but Cave couldn’t have been less present if he had sent his performance in via a web camera. And when you’re performing with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and the McGarrigles -- not to mention two of Cohen’s best backing singers -- you can’t afford to look lazy. And Cave did. (And I’ve been a fan of the man since Boys Next Door days, which made it all the more exasperating.)
But, no question, Antony was the audience favourite by the end of the night, because he was the exact opposite of Cave: generous, committed, utterly present. I still struggle to pin down what he did when he sang those two songs. In a ragged black sweater and his trademark ratty black wig -- jerking around like Joe Cocker -- Antony did something I’ve only ever seen musicians (a couple of concert pianists and a couple of cellists) and a vocal improviser do.
It’s something I imagine that Billie Holiday might have done when singing standards. It’s utterly responsive. Even though Antony was bound up tight in a complex and pre-determined big band arrangement, he delivered the songs as if he were creating them himself. On the fly. I was reminded, then, of something that was said about Holiday; that she “came to songs”... it sounds like a kind of annunciation, a visit from an angel.
I met Antony a few days after that first concert and found a gentle, inquisitive (and very blond!) man. More than just polite, genuinely curious and warm. He and his band, the Johnsons, have been touring constantly since then. It’s been a punishing tour schedule. In a single month, last year, Antony performed in no fewer than 24 cities in 8 countries: Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain and Portugal. I spoke to him in Amsterdam, early in June, and he was flatlining.
But he returned to Sydney as headlining act. He and his band had the gorgeously blowzy State Theatre -- the huge but strangely intimate theatre that housed Sam Mendes new version of Cabaret a few years back -- all to themselves. For three dates. And in a brilliant screw-turn of fate, Antony’s first show was stolen by his support act, CocoRosie, who are almost as unknown here as Antony was last year.
CocoRosie (image © CocoRosie)
Two voices, sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady: the first is an operatically trained dramatic soprano who also does a remarkable impersonation of a trumpet with her lips and voice; the second is helium-high crooner, her voice a weird, doodling cross between (Lamb vocalist) Lou Rhodes and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). Various instruments: celtic harp, piano, guitar... A beat box drummer also does some passable classical Indian chanting. The sisters sing songs of romance and eros and mystery, often all at once. CocoRosie is another distant spiritual descendent, perhaps, of Jane ‘When I Was A Boy’ Siberry. But, then again, isn’t Antony himself?
Anyway, last Friday CocoRosie did the unthinkable. They turned polite impatience into rapt attention. After a handful of songs, there was even a trace of anxiety in the air. God, what if they stop? They sang about beautiful boys and wanting to be a housewife, and they closed with a groin-grinding invitation to come caress the body of the helium-voiced one, Bianca.
Bianca and Sierra Casady (Photo © 2004 Pierre Jelenc)
A hard act to follow, surely.
Antony’s performance that Friday the Thirteenth was unexpectedly diffident. Tense and agitated. Song arrangements were sometimes loose, sometimes brittle. ‘Cripple and the Starfish’ was the first and greatest disappointment of the night. The only song from the debut self-titled album to make the cut was gutted; the thin acoustic guitar line a poor replacement for the CD's whimpering opening cello phrase.
‘You Are My Sister’ was another disaster, late in the set, plodding by numbers through another inexplicably dumbed-down arrangement.
‘Spiralling’ stopped the rot by focussing our attention on Antony’s greatest asset, his voice. Here, he sang with thrilling openness and joyous ease. He sang beautifully all night, in fact, and the sound engineers -- happily -- didn’t get in the way. The amplification of his voice was crisp and precise. I wish I could say the same about the amplification of the drum kit or the strings.
In a couple of the songs, ‘For Today I Am A Boy’ was one, Antony sang harmonies over our memories rather than staying true to the original songs. That worked well -- surprisingly -- with ‘What Can I Do?’ Rather than miss Rufus Wainwright, who sings it on Antony’s CD I Am a Bird Now, we admired the French folk ballad arrangement. But ‘You Are My Sister’ is almost not worth doing without Boy George. At least not in its current form.
Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Guests’ has stayed in Antony repertoire -- “it’s barnacled itself to me” he joked in Melbourne -- and has been performed “every night” since. It’s still a mighty fine version, pale as it seems next to the still blood red memory of his very first performance of the song.
In a set of 18 songs, which included an encore of Lou Reed’s ‘Candy Says’, standout tracks included a cover of Moondog’s first ever round ‘All Is Loneliness’ (which was almost too emotional to endure), ‘I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy’ (the first song I ever heard of Antony’s, written when he was 21, and this was only the second time I ever heard it!), ‘Spiralling’ and the closing song ‘Hope There’s Someone’.
Antony (image © laganzua.net/C.G.)
Word on the streets was that Antony’s next two Sydney shows were much improved on the first -- the one the critics all saw, alas! -- and that he was more relaxed and jokey.
At the very last minute -- and, well, we’re talking 75 minutes after doors opened -- I decided to try my luck at the sell-out Melbourne performance, the last major gig after a year on the road. Sure enough, an hour after the doors opened, thirty-odd tickets were returned by the promoter and released for sale. I scored row J, keyboard side.
I’m glad I went back. The balance was restored. CocoRosie were the diffident ones tonight, merely brilliant. The sound was harsh. This vast 2500-seater concert hall was too cold for the grrls, even if the audience was not.
Antony played exactly the same set in the same order (listed below) with just a single addition in the second half of the set. An experiment, he called it. He got all of the men in the audience to “ooo” a note, on cue, and all the women to “ooo” an adjacent note. Then, he sang a cappella “Trust your mother, trust your mother with your life...” with dazzling soft contributions from a mixed choir of two and a half thousand. It was a very special moment for all of us, Antony included.
As extraordinary a vocalist (and poet) as Antony is, he needs an arranger -- someone who can turn clouds of gossamer into filaments of gold -- and a much more exacting sound engineer. Maybe even a new band. Maybe it’s time he gave Hal Willner a call.
Antony (photograph by Svenson Linnert,
courtesy of Secretly Canadian)
Antony and the Johnsons concert playlist in Australia, 2006
01. You Stand Above Me
02. My Lady Story
03. Cripple and the Starfish
04. Everything is New
05. Dirt Will Crack Again
07. For today I am a boy
08. Man is the baby
09. All Is Loneliness (Moondog)
10. The Guests (Leonard Cohen)
11. Fistful of Love
Trust Your Mother [Melbourne only]
12. You are my Sister
13. I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy
14. What can I do?
15. Bird Guhl
16. Free at Last
17. Hope There’s Someone
18. Candy Says (Lou Reed) (encore)