Antony and the Johnsons
Southern Theatre, Columbus, February 4
by Matt Slaybaugh

The first thought that struck me when Antony—clad in baggy clothes and sporting long, pitch-black locks—started to to sing, was that he sounded perfect. Not just that his voice in person is as good as on CD, and not just that he hit all the notes, but that his voice was as clarion as could be. Strong, full, expressive, subtle, dynamic—some singers get by on charisma alone, and some make up for a lack of technical ability with soulful power and chops. Antony, both charismatic and soulful, doesn’t need to cover anything up. His voice is as magnificent an instrument as you’re ever likely to hear.

The hall was as dark as Antony’s hair as the Johnsons took the stage, lit only by the bulbs attached to the music stands (hence the dark photo above—what you get when made to shoot from a distance without a flash in the pitch-black). The group began with “Where Is the Power?” a sentimental, mid-tempo number not yet included in the group’s discography, and then moved into “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground,” the opening track from the group’s latest album, The Crying Light. They played it quietly and slowly, especially as the strings took over for the ending dirge.

The set was an almost even mix of tracks from The Crying Light (they only skipped one) and Antony’s signature tunes, including “For Today I Am a Boy,” “You Are My Sister,” and “Cripple and the Starfish.” Most of the numbers seemed in answer to the question “How gently can the band play?” “Another World” exemplified this trend, as the strings drew a single, slowly-changing chord for the entirety of the heartbreaking tune.

This pattern was broken most notably by “Shake that Devil,” from the Another World EP. On record, Antony is accompanied only by a growing drone until the song suddenly transforms into an upbeat, zydeco-flavored 12-bar jam. Live, the band did away with the drone and went straight for the jam—a longish, pointless, sub-par blues workout that didn’t go anywhere. One highlight of the evening was a cover of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love,” transformed into a swooning, chamber pop deconstruction, less celebratory than the original and several strides more disturbing.

I was, however, disappointed that the concert lacked much shape. The evening didn’t build to anything. There were moments of greatness scattered throughout, but more often than not the chill-inducing instants were followed by the least impressive, creating a continuous cycle of anti-climaxes. Some songs were unforgettable, but the evening as a whole didn’t reach its potential.

Antony is an ever-evolving performer, to say the least. His first Columbus performance, almost seven years ago, one of his first outside of Manhattan, was a carnival of distended gender. Which was fitting, since Antony at the time was in the midst of discovering his take on sex and the sexes. A short time later, in performance with Lou Reed, Antony seemed shy to the point of outright awkwardness, so embarrassed he could hardly stand in front of a crowd, much less sing to them. This time, pausing before and during songs to tell mortifying stories of his adolescent discoveries, Antony was clearly controlling his audience as much as he was his musical prowess. Now that his confidencce matches his ability, it will be gratifying to see how his stage show blossoms. I suspect that the next time around, Antony’s tour will be as electrifying as it is gratifying.