Antony And The Johnsons, Royal Albert Hall, London<br>John Cooper Clarke, Komedia, Bath

Antony Hegarty's voice somehow makes the woes of the world seem cheering

Sunday 29 March 2009 02:00

It is a truth, almost universally acknowledged, that the world went temporarily insane in 2005 when Antony And The Johnsons were awarded the Mercury Music Prize for their second album, I Am A Bird Now.

If the purpose of the Mercury is to give a helpful nudge to a mega unit-shifter in waiting, sure, it was lunacy. A & the Js were always too Marmite, too niche for that. But if it's a seal of quality, and commerce be damned, there could be no finer recipient.

Another insanity, sadly not temporary, is the ongoing situation whereby young cancer sufferers must rely on charitable donations for their care rather than state funding. But we are where we are, and tonight where we are is the Royal Albert Hall for a Teenage Cancer Trust concert.

And it's hard to think of a more fitting artist to perform at such an event than Antony Hegarty, a man whose miraculous voice seems to reverberate with succour and healing warmth. That's why I Am A Bird Now, with its gospel confessionals about gender displacement, domestic abuse and abandonment, touched people who hadn't experienced any of those things. And it's why, even though its successor, The Crying Light, is a more cryptic and esoteric beast, he's able to transcend its limitations in concert and reach out to his audience, albeit with the help of a few spoken explanations of the lyrical themes (environmental catastrophe, bereavement, doomed love).

A solemn, funereal figure, with his Johnsons hunched tightly in the gloom next to his piano like wagons circled against the dark night, he inspires a church-like hush in the hall as, with "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground", he opens a set which concentrates on the latest album ("Aeon", "One Dove", new single "Epilepsy Is Dancing"), throws in an improvisation around the words "teenage", "cancer" and "trust" and, by bringing out favourites like "You Are My Sister" and "For Today I Am A Boy", does something few other singers can. He breaks your heart, and he mends it again.

"I may never live long enough," says John Cooper Clarke, "to be as old as I look." It's a great line but, from the back of the room at least, the Johnny Clarke of 2009 – a Scissorhands apparition in a Teddy boy jacket and red-lensed specs, with pipecleaner legs and electrocution hair – is indistinguishable from the one I saw at the 1980 Cambridge Folk Festival.

Back then he was the Salford punk poet genius whose bleak depictions of Northern life inspired The Fall and whose albums, in collaboration with the Invisible Girls, used inventive exotica and electric bossa nova as a backing for his sewers of consciousness. Nowadays he still resembles something dreamt up by the Brothers Grimm, but his live show is entirely a cappella – that is to say, a stand-up comedy routine.

Clarke softens you up with observations about single shoes on bus-shelter roofs, before moving into more adventurous territory: the ethics of eating roadkill, the possibility that Pontius Pilate had OCD, the ancient Greeks' lax attitude to health and safety ("A cyclops and a unicorn? That's an accident waiting to happen").

His actual songs/poems are largely new. "Things Are Gonna Get Worse, Nurse" acknowledges the onset of old age (he's 60), and the classics survive only in modified form: "Beasley Street" has been gentrified to "Beasley Boulevard", a Nathan Barley-esque vision of Hell. Requests for other oldies, like "You'll Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express", are turned down. "That's out of date," Clarke replies. "The Express is now owned by a porn baron. I like to think I had something to do with it ..."

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