Moore Theatre Feb. 28th 2009
It was my girlfriend’s birthday. We got to the Moore Theatre about 45 minutes before doors to meet up with the contest winner and hand over his limited edition silkscreen. I got a call from him on the phone asking if there was any way for him to pick me out in the crowd that was out in front of the venue. I let him know that I was the only guy out front with dreadlocks, wearing 2 cardigans and a holding a camera bag. When he finally introduced himself and shook my hand, it was just after watching me argue with the will-call about the location of my tickets.
The winner received his passes from the will-call without issue, and he even tried to get the window attendants to hand mine over to me. The workers were condescending as fuck to me, but my main concern was making sure that the winners got their passes and that was clear. I told him and the friend he brought with him not to worry about it, “I’ll get in.” Now the only problem was that the evening planned for my lady on her birthday was blowing up in my face. The crazy part was that I was given my photo pass but there were no tickets in the envelope with it. I convinced a door guy to help me out and he said he’d grab someone in charge if they walked by. I see the guy who tried to put the kaibosh on my photography during the Buckethead New Years show but, fortunately, he keeps moving. Eventually, a manager came out front who was extremely helpful. He hopped on his phone right away and offered us two options due to the theatre filling up rapidly: We could wait for someone to come down and see if they could get us a spot on the floor or, we could head up to the second balcony because, “Nobody’s up there“. We just wanted to head in, so we came through the front and then headed through a latched side door and up a staircase.
The stairs did not look like they were made for use by the public and they seemed to go on forever. When we got to the top I realized that he wasn’t exaggerating; NOBODY was up there. We had the balcony to ourselves and, if we really felt like getting thrown out, we even had our own spotlights to use. I had never been up there before and it was the first time that I really noticed the layout of the historic venue. Stained glass windows and majestic statues filled the upper level and ceiling. It wasn’t a bad view at all. I realized that, after shooting on the floor under the “first 3 songs / no flash” policy, I would still be able to pull a few more shots off under the radar from the Lee Harvey Oswald view that the balcony provided.
I looked down at the stage and there was a grand piano, drum kit, and chairs set up in a partial orchestra arrangement. The lights were on like there was a performance going on, but the stage was empty of any performers. That’s when a woman came out dressed in a costume that looked somewhat like a bloody zebra. Her claw-like hands resembled those of Anjelica Huston from Captain EO and were arched like Ralph Macchio in the crane kick position. The Nutcracker Suite was playing as she lurched and swayed like an animal. Then it was over. We had only caught the tail end. I later learned that the performance art was being done by Johanna Constantine, formerly of the Blacklips Performance Cult, where Antony Hegarty also began his career. Some of the tracks featured on his debut album with The Johnsons were originally crafted and performed for the New York drag, art theatre troupe’s weekly shows, throughout their 3 year span of existence (1992-95).
I grabbed my camera and shuffled down the staircase. On my way down, I could already hear people beginning to clap and cheer. Antony and the Johnsons were already taking the stage. I’ve mentioned before how I first saw Antony covering “If it be Your Will” in a Leonard Cohen documentary and how his talent immediately drew me in. Over the last couple of months I have been listening to the majority of his catalog, in a failed attempt to recreate that same intrigue and appreciation through his original material. A couple of days before the show, however, I saw Antony performing his latest sing, “Aeon“, on Letterman and was impressed all over again. I’ve had a strong feeling that his live concerts would provide a whole other, much more powerful experience and I was about to find out if I was right or not. I flashed my pass and ran down the aisle. I found a spot in an empty seat up front and pulled out my camera in the dimly lit theatre.
The players had all taken their spots in their corresponding seats and were holding their instruments. It was so dark that I could barely see a goddamn thing. Fold out seats blocked any avenue to the stage and other photographers were climbing around and over people to get their views. I chose not to be “that guy”. The music began and the crowd was immediately captivated. Piano, drums, strings, and woodwinds filled the room and it felt as if everyone began to breath more slowly and in unison. During the first 3 songs, I was almost too focused to try and take any pictures at all. Even the click of my own camera was too distracting. Antony started off with newer material and played “Where is my Power?“, “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground“, and “Epilepsy is Dancing” consecutively. His voice sounded amazing and the venue was silent with all eyes on the stage. I was offered the option of bringing my “friend” down with me from the balcony but we chose to stay in our own personal and less crowded area above.
I returned to my seat to hear Antony and the Johnsons play the song “One Dove“. So far the set has been comprised of all strictly newer material. The last 3 songs are also the first 3 tracks from the group’s latest album, The Crying Light, and were performed live in chronological order. The opener, “Where is my Power“, is actually the B-Side of the “Epilepsy is Dancing” single. The next song was “For Today I am a Boy” from the Mercury Prize winning album I Am a Bird Now. The crowd was clearly happy to hear material that they were more familiar with and their claps disrupted the barrier between the audience and the stage for the first time. Antony stopped playing mid-intro, with a comically stoic look on his pale face. He mocked the audience with slow drawn out and overly dramatic “golf claps” of his own. The crowd chuckled and then he went back into the song and finished it. He took a sip of water and then immediately continued his set by playing “Kiss My Name“, which is also the next track on The Crying Light.
The next song, “Everglade“, could have easily been pulled from a dramatic broadway musical sequence. Antony stayed perched behind his piano keys, but he would not have looked out of place standing on an elaborately decorated stage from Madame Butterfly. It has a slow start and a clarinet slowly bleeds in, moments into the song. When it’s over Hegarty explains that he had fucked up part of the song ,even though nobody seemed to notice. An audience member screams, “I love you!” and he responds with, “Thank you. That’s nice.” His comments were slightly condescending but came across more as loving good humored responses. He offered to redo the song by saying, “We could do it again” and then decided to move on by saying something that sounds like “It’s not like it’s horse jumping” This is the first dialogue that the singer really creates with the audience; casually dismissing the mysterious quality that the first part of the show created. While the instrumentation was still stalled, Antony began singing the Milli Vanilli hit, “Blame it on the Rain” a-capella. The crowd chuckled collectively and, every time that it seemed like he was ready to move on, he would begin again by singing deeper and deeper into the lyrics.
The concert got back on track with the slow and elegant “Another World“. I sneezed and the sound shot around in the acoustics like it was fired from a musket. The next tune came in slow and took off when the drummer began banging out a steady rhythm that reminded me of “We Got The Beat” from the Go-Gos. It evolved into a really jazzy bebop-style number, “Shake That Devil“, from the Another World EP. This song was great and really showcased the groups range, complete with band members calling out lyrics and squawking jazz sax. It would have fit right at home on the “Down By Law” soundtrack next to Tom Waits and John Lurie from The Lounge Lizards. Antony snapped his way through “The Crying light” Carmen Miranda-style and the drummer led off the following song with his brushes on the hi-hat. I recognized it immediately as “Crazy in Love” by Beyonce, but tried to convince myself that I was imagining it. I wasn’t and it turned out to be one of the best and most original covers that I’ve heard since Devo‘s “Satisfaction“.
After the song, someone in the crowd screamed, “Fuck Beyonce!” Antony responded with, “Who would say that? I know you’re kidding….I hope.” and by admitting that he “think(s) she’s kind of sacred“. Again a voice yelled that his version was “amazingly better” to which he replied, “No way.” The silence was broken and someone towards the back yelled a request for “Put a Ring on It.” “Hmm….” Hegarty mulled it over, while tapping his fingers on the piano top. He did adlibbed some piano lines and spoken lyrics, “Why is a young girl in America a sacred girl? Why is a young African American girl a sacred Star?….” After fucking around for a minute, he looked to his band and said, “Let’s just go into ‘You Are My Sister‘ I think“. Instead his mind continued to wander to subjects like his recent trip to the Noise Pop festival in SF, his visit to the redwoods, and the moss that covered the massive trees. “Who invented that? A beautiful pillow over everything.” Eventually, they played the song. After that, he spoke of his recent introspection about being mindful of the social privileges provided to him by his white skin and then broke into a Motown-like groove for “Fisful of Love” (I am a Bird Now).
Antony left the stage and grabbed a lyric sheet. When he returned he explained that they were going to perform, “I Was Young When I Left Home“, a traditional song that Bob Dylan did a “beautiful” version of. Their version, which is to be featured on a benefit album for AIDS, took the show in the direction of John Prine. He finished up the set with “Twilight” and a powerful rendition of “Aeon“. After returning to uproars of applause, Hegarty took the mic and said, “You’re so sweet. It’s like I’m playing for a litter of kittens or something“. He played “Cripple and the Starfish” (originally from his Blacklips days), made a quick reference to his Irish Grandpa being a shoe salesmen, and then ended the night with “Hope There’s Someone“. The crowd spilled out of the venue with the mixed feeling of awe and the knowledge that wherever they were heading would be undoubtedly less satisfying as the place they were leaving.
Based on my experiences, unless you go to a rowdy Baptist church or are part of a backwoods mountain cult hopped up on designer drugs, churches are often places of guilt, boredom, and obligation. It is rare to create an environment anywhere that has everyone equally engaged and all feeling positive in the same way. The magic and awe that was created through Antony and the Johnsons‘ performance was unmatched and that collective wonder eminated throughout the building. Much like PHISH, which in many ways could be considered their antithesis, Antony and the Johnsons have a catalog which must be viewed in a concert setting to truly appreciate. Perhaps it was because it was the last date of their North American tour, but Antony opened up with the crowd much more than he has been known to do in the past. I definitely suggest going to a performance whenever and wherever possible. I was so impressed with the show that I am openly taking responsibility for the collection of music that I currently have on my laptop, instead of lumping it in under the guilty pleasure category of “Oh..that? I just have that on there for my girlfriend“. Whether it’s your cup of tea or not, I find it hard to believe that many people could leave a show like this without having some level of respect for the artist or agreeing that his performances are honestly powerful. The music that Antony Hegarty writes and performs is like what teenage girls believe they are expressing with the failed scrawlings in their personal diaries. Somehow Antony actually taps into his deep emotional content and successfully delivers it without contrivance.