Antony And The Johnsons
Mercati Generali, Catania, Italy
May 8, 2005

I have to confess that I can't remember the last time I witnessed as big an effort as the launch of the career of New York-based Antony; strange indeed, if we take into consideration the "indie" dimension he belongs to, and the quite selective nature of his public persona. As it's well-known, Lou Reed was the first to give his career a big boost by asking for his collaboration on tour and on record and by giving him two of his classic songs to sing: Perfect Day (the famous track featured on Reed's glamour/commercial album, Transformer) and Candy Says, the opening track of Velvet Underground's "meditative" album (their self-titled third one) and a song that incorporates a whole mythology. There were also warm declarations of esteem by Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass, and by artists such as Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright and Boy George, who alongside Reed provided valuable cameos to I Am A Bird Now, Antony's second full-length album and the one which put him under the big spotlight.

A very positive review by David Fricke - four stars - appeared in Rolling Stone (#967, 10 February 2005); Fricke wrote of "a voice (...) in which Nina Simone, Morrissey and Joni Mitchell seem to inhabit the same breath". The same enthusiasm, but a somewhat different list of names, appeared in the long article printed in UK's Mojo (#137, April 2005): "Laura Nyro, Marc Almond, Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway"; it's still USA Fricke, here acting as "international cheerleader". The same enthusiasm could be found in The Wire, where Marc Masters (#254, April 2005) mentioned "David Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed circa Transformer and Berlin". Names dropped left and right: Judy Garland, Otis Redding, Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. After a few concerts held in prestigious venues, a three-month European tour was announced.

All this activity made me more than a bit puzzled. Sure, I'm perfectly aware that the majority of the audience is nowadays made "deaf" by the overabundance of stimuli by which it's bombarded every day; hence, it's only logical that every publicity attack worth its name has to be conducted on a massive scale. But how can an artist's work survive the sheer dimension of the expectations raised by this kind of massive hype? There was also another factor: most of the articles I read (a recurrent word was "androgyny") emphasized the singer's character, with a prose more appropriate for a reality show than for a music magazine. Sometimes it seemed like people who had yet to be born at the time when Lou Reed was "Vicious" and Ziggy "played guitar" were happy to use a propos of Antony those words they had thought about Reed and Bowie.

As soon as I knew that Antony's tour would visit my town, I bought a ticket - not expensive, by the way (11.50 euros), since the concert was part of a festival financed by public money. The first surprise for me was the fact that all available tickets (about 350) had been sold well before the day of the concert; the second surprise came as soon as the concert began: the sound was clean, crystal clear (now I'm curious to hear what those who claim that a "difficult room" will always produce nasty sounds will say from now on). The audience was quite a strange mix, with a few people of the "trendy" kind, a sure sign that the hype had worked like a charm.

As soon as I got used to the marble (yes: it was a choice of sitting on the floor, or standing up) I looked at the line-up on stage: the leader's piano and vocals, electric bass, violin, cello and a guitarist (on acoustic) who doubled on violin and vocals. What can I say? Thanks to the good sound, it was easy to get the fact that the music was definitely average (mediocre?). Antony's voice was versatile, and not bad at all, but well below (what I'd call) my legitimate expectations (Jeff Buckley?!?!). Compositions are not bad, but even if the vocals are somewhat versatile, after four or five songs a certain air of monotony began to infiltrate the room (it was at this point that people started leaving the concert); the two covers that were played - of songs by Moondog and by Current 93 - showed that the originals sounded somewhat too similar to each other. I didn't really get Antony's stage strategy, which appeared to maintain traces of his past career in cabaret: his spoken interludes, while rich with facts and atmosphere, seemed to allude to musical theatre, and so they enclosed the songs in quotation marks, producing a very strange distancing effect. The track called Water And Dust (or Dust And Water?), where Antony called for a more than a few minutes of "audience participation time", was a real disgrace. The low point of the night, however, was the encore: an interpretation of Candy Says, with the second part of the song being sung with totally inappropriate "jazzy" stylings.

Here I have to report that many in the audience were quite happy; and that a few autographs were signed on newly purchased records.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | May 15, 2005