Review: Antony and the Johnsons @ Pabst Theater (2/13)

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Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater
Words by Adam Lovinus

Before Friday night, I was pretty much tabula rasa when it came to Antony Hegarty. I had read how his music fell into the ‘goth-prog’ genre, that it ‘bridges the gap between avant-classical and the blues.’ There was also the transgender/androgyny component that journalists write a lot about.

Label it whatever you want, the live performance by Antony and the Johnsons left me nothing less than impressed.

As an enthusiast of all things prog, I was most impressed by the avant-garde-ness of Hegarty’s compositions and the prowess of his band. Hegarty sang and played piano, backed by a three-piece string ensemble, drums and and electric guitar and bass. The strings players are multi-instrumentalists; the violinist played acoustic guitar for half the show, the viola player also played electric guitar and trumpet. Juilliard-quality musicians who dabble in the avant garde. I was especially impressed by the John Cale-inspired string drones upon which Hegarty painted his lyrically noir vocal stylings. Awesome stuff.

The androgyny thing wasn’t the way you’d think of a Boy George or a David Bowie — Hegarty has a the build of a defensive lineman, and has a naturally booming baritone that he somehow pushes into a soprano register at times. He doesn’t go falsetto and uses lots of vibrato. Sometimes I would identify the voice as masculine, other times the voice was feminine (very Billie Holiday), sometimes it was neither.

Assigned seating at the Pabst made it much more more ‘theater’ than ‘Pabst.’ Hegarty loved the German Renaissance style and hospitality of the house, giving several shout outs to the theater during the show. I love hearing that. The audience was of the ‘NPR set’ … a little older than the RadioMilwaukee set, slightly smarter than the WKLH crowd … you know, a 35-50 audience that’s into music other than Styx or Michael McDonald. Something like that.

After hearing the band play heavy songs like “For Today I am a Boy,” and “You Are My Sister,” one might feel this is a band that takes itself too seriously — until they bust out an arranged cover of “Crazy in Love” by Jay-Z/Beyonce. When they go back to blowing your mind with material like the dark-as-hell, blues-laden groove “Shake The Devil,” it’s hard not to become a fan.

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