Antony And The Johnsons, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Passing on the torch song
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If Marc Almond fails to upstage a performer, you know you are in the presence of true star potential. And that was with Antony Hegarty barely trying, as he performed an understated, chamber set of soon-to- be standards.

If Marc Almond fails to upstage a performer, you know you are in the presence of true star potential. And that was with Antony Hegarty barely trying, as he performed an understated, chamber set of soon-to- be standards.

His second album is awash with simple piano lines, but the arresting I Am A Bird Now also features operatic pop and mournful Stax-era horns that could have graced an Otis Redding record. It is a far cry from the singer's roots in New York's avant-garde scene, where he performed in drag as a Leigh Bowery acolyte and other artists played with blood bags.

That scene was a reaction to the Aids epidemic sweeping the city's gay community. Now in his early thirties, Antony has shared enough pain and sought to bring some beauty into people's lives. He achieved this with an eponymous debut album whose baroque shapes framed a voice that won plaudits from Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, while Boy George and Rufus Wainwright were encouraged to guest on its more forceful follow-up. After a low-key support slot at the back end of last year, the stage was set for Antony's keenly awaited UK return.

Yet his entrance was anything but grand. As five of the ever-changing Johnsons line-up took their places, an acoustic guitarist picked a meandering tune. The group were just as tense as the audience, as even the guitar player glanced back to the wings for the main attraction. When he arrived five minutes later, most people missed the hulking figure in dark garb that sat in front of a grand piano.

If Antony worried about meeting expectations, his voice betrayed nothing. Perhaps slightly diffident at the start, it was still a thing of rare beauty, able to carry off the most far-reaching falsetto and create a deep, rich timbre. Despite his range, Antony avoided the sonic gymnastics beloved of today's divas, leaving him with formidable emotional clarity. He could sing an exquisite aria on "Man is The Baby" or perform the most plaintive soul on "You Are My Sister".

Such delicacy was a boon when many lyrics would have sounded overblown in more clumsy hands. With Antony's background, it is no wonder death is a major theme. Not quite as prevalent, though, as transformation, from boy to man, or boy to girl, which he handled with a delicious sense of yearning. Even the ode to rough sex, "Cripple and the Starfish", came with disarming tenderness.

With similar aplomb, Antony dropped in a wide-ranging series of covers. He transformed Leonard Cohen's wry "The Guests" into a sublime elegy for both the lost and the losers, then got low down and dirty on Simone's gritty "Be My Husband". The highlight here, though, was Lou Reed's meditation on gender-shifting, "Candy Says", which Antony made his own.

All this was delivered from behind a curtain of lank, dark hair. On a rare moment when he turned to face his rapt audience, Antony introduced a man without whom, the singer said, he would not have got anywhere. Much has been made of the effect that early exposure to Boy George and Almond had on the artist's youth, but jaws hit the aisles when the Soft Cell frontman emerged.

This was Almond's first appearance since last year's motorbike accident almost took his life. An ecstatic reception and the presence alongside such a massive talent were overwhelming. "Twenty five years in this business and I'm shaking like a leaf," Almond exclaimed when he could get a word in. Then, in a refreshing change of mood, the old hand belted out, in cabaret style, Antony's lament "River of Sorrow", before the latter's low rumble enveloped his voice.

With the torch singer baton handed over, Antony rose at the end to reveal he was as gangling and awkward as Stephen Fry. The vocalist may be more confrontational than the self-styled "bin bag full of yogurt", but deserves to be just as cherished.

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