Saturday, October 13, 2012

‘Swanlights’ concert, review and set list (Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony and Boy George)

Guess who -- or rather what -- isn’t credited in the Swanlights program? A sound engineer. Funny that. I only looked to see who to ‘credit’.

In the first handful of songs, Antony’s voice and the orchestra were eviscerated. Correction. Only the viscera was left behind. There was little top end and no bottom end at all. Just mushy, strident, overamplified mid-range. It sounded less impressive -- less spacious, less dynamic, less defined -- than this year’s live CD, Cut the World, made by Antony and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra.

Singing behind an opaque scrim, Antony was in excellent voice, fresh and strong. As comfortable and confident as we’ve seen and heard him, live. He didn’t take as many risks, vocally, as usual, until the final song in the main set (Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground), but he was so gloriously ‘on’ from the first words (“Eyes are falling...”) that it didn’t actually matter. It’s as if the new arrangements allowed him to encounter the songs anew.

Whoever was on the mixing desk pulled things together towards the end of the second song, Cripple and the Starfish -- there was a bit of a sound image perceptible at last -- but the sound was nothing to write letters to Australia about. The orchestral midrange was still claggy (“shit claggy” according to my scrawled notes).

After the dullness of the opening laser-green projections, Another World lived up to its lyrics. Exceeded them. The lasers, shone from the circle level, made the air glitter. They made webby galaxies, not merely worlds. Then, while Antony playfully sang Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, a wide shaft of laser light swept a slow and menacing line back and forward in front of him. The strings generated a sonic aurora to match.

Time after time, the lyrics were pre-empted by the lighting effects. Antony sang “I cry glitter” and “cut me in quadrants” (from ‘Epilepsy is Dancing’) then “It’s a golden thing” (‘Swanlights’) as if he’d pulled the ideas from the aether... or the clarinets. In Ghost, he sang upwards, to the prompt side, bathed in lemony light.

I was a bit surprised to read in the program notes, just now, that Swanlights is “set in the dark heart of a crystal mountain.” I took the (hollow) crystal shards above the stage as box kites, which makes sense when you notice the backdrop between Antony and the mostly hidden orchestra is parachute fabric. This concert was all about air, sky, light and the vaulted heavens, not about being holed up in a dank and icy crystal palace. Even in the wondrous, enigmatic ‘Crying Light’, the orchestra turned tears into bird song and feathery down.

Antony -- through his extraordinary, evocative, changeling, transgender songs -- looks like he might be the Rosetta Stone, our means to decode Brett Sheehy’s fourth and final Melbourne Festival. How strange to have Antony singing “today I am a boy” while The Rabble’s take on Orlando opens a few blocks down St Kilda Road at the Malthouse.

I’ve already quoted ‘Hope There’s Someone’ in my review of Michel van der Aa’s After Life... I could well have quoted ‘You Are My Sister’ in the same review: “So many memories, but there’s nothing to gain from remembering.”

The heart-stopping moment of the concert -- which silenced the audiences for what felt like an age... half a minute, more, close to a whole minute -- came in ‘I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy’ when this secular preacher in his robes, this holy man with no agenda, with no aching need for disciples, raised his arms and raised the backdrop of the airy temple.

It was as remarkable a moment as the one in his very first visit to Melbourne when he divided his Hamer Hall audience into groups and asked us to hum, something he didn’t attempt in his earlier Sydney concerts. It was church, man. Church.

Er, church in a good way!

That particular moment was trumped by the second song in the encore when Antony, without ceremony, introduced Boy George. His contribution to ‘You Are My Sister’ was luscious. Unforgettable.

When the house lights came up and the orchestra broke up, the audience was still standing, cheering, clapping. Not hungry for more, but hungry to show its appreciation some more. A rare experience at any concert.

For all my fellow trainspotters, here’s a list of the songs Antony sang with the Melbourne Symphony last night. The second (and final) concert is tonight.

Main set:

01. Rapture (from Antony and the Johnsons, 2000)
02. Cripple and the Starfish (Antony and the Johnsons)
03. For Today I Am a Boy (I am a bird now, 2005)
04. Another World (Another World EP, 2008)
05. Crazy In Love (Aeon/Crazy In Love double A-side single, 2009)
06. Epilepsy Is Dancing (The Crying Light, 2009)
07. Swanlights (Swanlights, 2010)
08. Ghost (Swanlights)
09. I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy (I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy EP, 2001)
10. Dust and Water (The Crying Light)
11. Cut the World (Cut the World, 2012)
12. The Crying Light (The Crying Light)
13. Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground (The Crying Light)


14. Salt Silver Oxygen (Swanlights)
15. You Are My Sister with Boy George (I am a bird now)

Swanlights. Antony and the Johnsons with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Anthony Weeden, conductor. Gael Rakotondrabe, piano. Lighting by Chris Levine. Set by Carl Robertshaw. Hamer Hall, Melbourne, October 12. Also tonight.

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