Otherworldly night from Antony and the Johnsons
With his high-pitched, ethereal warble, Antony Hegarty's voice is like his music: frail but fearless, aching to leap beyond earthbound restrictions. It draws from Nick Drake, Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, and Tim Buckley without quite resembling any of them. It's so singular, in fact, that it's hard to imagine Antony and the Johnsons having casual fans. Devotion to this particular band would seem to come with an all-or-nothing clause.
So it wasn't surprising that Sunday's show at the Berklee Performance Center was sold out, or that Hegarty was capable of commanding quiet even from a full house. That was vital, since a stray murmur would have punctured many of his songs like a pin in a balloon. "You Are My Sister" began with three repeated notes played on violin, cello, and clarinet with the lightest of touches; on the heart-stoppingly hushed "Another World," the strings each held a single, drawn-out note while Hegarty offered the sparsest of piano parts.
The same approach informed a cover of "Crazy in Love," with a simple hi-hat tap keeping time underneath shivering strings. That a Beyonce song prompted some of the evening's loudest applause raised some questions about what else is on the iPods of people into artsy transgender chamber-pop singers with otherworldly voices. Hegarty remained unconcerned about his indie bona fides, though, taking a moment to lead the crowd in a chant of his post-song comment, "You can't top perfection, but you can sidle up next to it."
It was the only example of camp in a show that otherwise assiduously avoided it, even during Hegarty's lighthearted moments. During a discussion about faith healers, someone in the crowd was prompted to call out, "Can I put my hands on you?," to which Hegarty replied, "Well, I have to question your motives."
In a way, that good-natured serenity reached to the core of Antony and the Johnsons' music, which aspired more to uplift than to a good mope. Both "Kiss My Name" and Jeff Langston's jumpy bass line in "Epilepsy Is Dancing" seemed downright playful. "Shake That Devil," meanwhile, folded droning strings and guitar, a tawdry drumbeat, and Douglas Wieselman's cracked saxophone blats into a tale of sexual regret.
But Hegarty wasn't interested in wallowing in bitterness when he could luxuriate in drama. Introducing "Aeon," which sounds like a song David Bowie never wrote for Otis Redding, he announced that he wanted the roof to come off so the stars could come down and tell his fingers what to do. The show began with the lamps on the band's music stands providing the only illumination, but Antony and the Johnsons aspired more than anything to walk in the light.