Antony and the Johnsons find Berklee worthy

A review of Antony and the Johnsons at the Berklee Performance Center on February 22

, Staff Writer

Apparently Antony And The Johnsons aren’t that easy to see in concert: the lead singer and creative force behind the group, Antony Hegarty, will only play in venues with excellent acoustics so traditional venues, where sounds tend to fall flat and mix in less-than-ideal ways, are out. However, Boston is thankfully home to the Berklee College of Music, and as such we enjoy a number of great concert halls. Antony on this night performed at the Berklee Performance Center, a fairly large hall right on Mass Ave in the middle of Berklee’s campus.

The show itself was a peculiar mix of extreme passion and strange humor in between songs. Antony’s voice was the focal point of the show, to be sure. A warm, velvety thing, Hegarty’s vocals filled the room with spot-on slides, impeccable oohs and lyrics that painted exactly the picture he wanted to convey. The rest of the ensemble – a cello, two violins, one or two guitars depending on the song, and horns – performed intricate arrangements perfectly, generally providing a soft pad for Antony to weave his vocals through.

After not saying a word to the audience through the first few songs, Antony allowed a still pause to fill the room before leaning into the microphone. “N-O-T…S-O-B” he said. After another pause where nobody got the joke, he quickly said, “That’s Boston, backwards.” Immediately the show became a much less intimate affair and the audience felt pretty friendly with Antony. Throughout the show he would give strange bits of advice, such as faith-healing recommendations to wish away bad luck from driving on the mean streets of our fair city, or presenting a basket of fruit to one man who triumphantly proclaimed not owning a MacBook.

“Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground” was an exquisite and mournful song, Antony crooning gently over a beautiful string arrangement. Time expanded and contracted in accordance with the weight of the song, and the music swelled and fell again as it continued along, almost impressionistic in its fluidity. Doug Wieselman, horn and guitar player, added a heartbreaking clarinet line on occasion that really did well to bolster the arrangement. Wieselman also demonstrated his amazing prowess on the old axe, laying down a ridiculous solo during “Fistful of Love”, one of the group’s more rocking songs. “Epilepsy Is Dancing”, one of the highlights of the new album The Crying Light, proved to translate to the live stage impeccably, with Antony and guitar/violin player Rob Moose harmonizing tightly and impressively with one another throughout the piece.

An unexpected and hilarious surprise came when, out of nowhere, the ensemble launched into a chamber music rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love”. It took until the first chorus for everyone else in the audience to get why the rest were laughing and clapping so much, but eventually everyone was really into it. “You can’t top perfection,” Antony quipped when the song had ended, “but you can sidle up next to it!” He then had the audience repeat the mantra not once, but twice, the second time in fake British accents with arms waving in the air.

The evening was a night filled with excellent music, and once you understand the unique “chamber cabaret” aesthetic of Antony And The Johnsons, it’s easy to see how much other style is thrown into the mix: elements of rock and jazz pervaded their way through many of the songs, and the impressive musicianship of all those involved on-stage made any direction they went in completely viable. If Antony is as finicky as the rumors say he is about where he performs, we were lucky indeed to see him at all.

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