Antony and the Johnsons
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., March 9, 2003) – Saturday night’s concert by Antony and the Johnsons at Mass MoCA was a bit like a dream – that is, if your dreams are directed by David Lynch, with his typical undercurrent of subterranean, sublimated anxiety, sexual or otherwise.

Singer Antony, who writes most of his own material, cut an exotic figure with his heavenly heartbreaking tenor and his effeminate mien. He sang of the pain of love (and vice versa) in an inordinately heightened, emotional state intended to resolve itself through a kind of soulful transcendence or catharsis.

His band, the Johnsons -- really a small orchestra -- aided Antony in his efforts with artful arrangements of his cabaret compositions. Violinists Joan Wasser and Maxim Moston were credited with the gorgeous arrangements, which were fleshed out with finesse by electric bassist Jeff Langston, pianist Jason Hart, drummer Todd Cohen and guest cellist Michele Schifferle.

If you closed your eyes, you could have been fooled into thinking you were hearing the voice of a black soul singer – a Smokey Robinson or Otis Redding, say, suddenly struck with an exaggerated vibrato and a plaintive streak. Antony channeled the melismatic style of singing that soul inherited from gospel – the dance of several notes to put across a single syllable – which only heightened the built-in tension provided by lyrics like “Forgive me, let live me, set my spirit free,” and “I am very happy/So please hit me.”

But subtlety was exaggeration’s equal, which is what kept Antony’s performance from succumbing to camp. Most of his songs spoke to universal themes of the pain of love (and vice versa). This was played out to the utmost on a simple blues in which he sang, “Be my husband and I’ll be your wife.” The lyrics were utterly typical of Delta-style, country blues, but the undercurrent – the David Lynch factor – was the intensity of the focus on domination and submission within a loving relationship.

Blues, or even conventional love songs, will likely never sound the same to anyone who attended Antony’s performance.

Antony has become something of a protégé of Lou Reed’s, and he concluded his sold-out performance in MoCA’s Club B-10 with an apt reading of Reed’s “Candy Says,” linking this concert to many previous ones at MoCA by Reed-connected and Velvet Underground-influenced artists, including Patti Smith, Cowboy Junkies, Luna and Little Jimmy Scott. And the Club B-10 itself continues to grow in character, taking on the aspect of a real nightclub.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 12, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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