When Antony & the Johnsons' I Am A Bird Now won this year's Mercury Prize, he brought a world of outsiders into the light. His songs blur gender borders, referencing both the Eighties sex subversives he idolised as a child - Marc Almond, Boy George - and the transgressive New York demi-monde of Warhol, Candy Darling and Lou Reed. Antony writes tales of transformation, of men to boys and boys to girls, his album's title, giving such changes a magical edge. He himself has changed nationalities (leaving England for America aged 10) and appearances, looking ghostly and glamorous in photos, belying his burly frame. But the pain of Aids-era New York is one constant, expressed in his high, remarkable voice: day blues, by any other name.
It's a far cry from Manhattan to this grand Midlands hall. But the classical ambience, and an unusually middle-aged crowd, who cheer every song, suit Antony well.
There's a soaring, choral, melodramatic quality to his voice, with few current pop equivalents. A mixture of almost camp quavering and faithful fervour, he waits till several songs in, on "Everything Is New", to briefly unleash its full force. "For Today, I Am A Child" also nears takeoff, as he pounds out heavy chords on his piano, and dreams of a puberty that will leave him feminised.
Otherwise, he's jazzy, almost improvisational. The Johnsons, for the most part a dolorous string section, add almost funereal weight to this scat-like flow. Only the lyrics, at first, give clues to the deeper darkness, and desire for redemption, that fill Antony's head. "Cut off my fingers, I will grow back like a starfish," he claims on "Cripple And The Starfish". "Happy bleedy, happy broody," he continues, laying himself lovingly open to harm, in a masochist ballad.
"You Are My Sister", by contrast, taken slow with acoustic guitar, is a gender-blind tribute to some former muse, one of several songs that glimpse something transcendent in some idealised other, someone who may spirit Antony away from the world's cruelties. On "Always A Loneliness", by the legendary, late blind street singer Moondog, the sense of sadness underlying such hope is almost dirge-like, suggesting Antony's long-ago Catholic upbringing.
He is an exceptional interpretative singer throughout tonight. Leonard Cohen's "The Guests" becomes a dreamy folk epic, nodding to Nick Drake, and again suggesting something beyond himself. Lou Reed's "Candy Says" touches the black-leather cruelty and residual sentiment of Reed's world (Lou and Antony are frequent collaborators), but Antony's own almost pitiful wish for kindness soon softens it.
Antony's own "Hope There's Someone", very near the end, then shows what he keeps in reserve. His piano notes swell like stormy seas, and his voice soars effortlessly, allowing us a glimpse of something truly, unexpectedly wild. A little more wouldn't go amiss, in a gig that seems to hint at Antony's full, ecstatic depths.Reuse content