ANTONY with the HIDDEN CAMERAS , DANIEL OLSON , MARLA HLADY , ERIC CHENAUX AND THE TRISTANOS , DANIEL BARROW and DJs LUIS JACOB and ANDREW ZEALLEY at Harbourfront Theatre Centre (231 Queens Quay West), Saturday (April 10). $25-$100. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
It's rare in a music writer's life for an artist's talent to overshadow the back story and hype. It's even more impressive when the artist in question's story is so colourful. Laurie Anderson compares discovering the New York City-based singer known as Antony to hearing Elvis for the first time. Lou Reed has been turning to the androgynous performance-artist-turned-crooner to sing his songs in concert, namely Perfect Day and Candy Says, as well as providing background vocals for Reed on tour and in the studio. It's rumoured that Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame was reduced to tears on seeing him perform.
Granted, Antony's overwrought, wrenchingly emotional channelling of Nina Simone and Otis Redding out of a defiantly faggy art-brat body isn't for everyone. The themes are dark, with plenty of blood and tears and gender-fucking.
The theatrical quality may be left over from his roots in experimental theatre, which can be off-putting at first. The exaggerated vibrato evokes Edith Piaf or Billy Holiday, and the sparse piano and string arrangements on his recordings as Antony and the Johnsons seem stark compared to most of the music being released these days.
Unfortunately, Antony's ambiguous attitude toward gender has sometimes distracted listeners from his eerie and unique voice, and he's had to resist attempts to pigeonhole him as some sort of campy drag act.
"I never did drag," Antony says firmly from his NYC apartment. "Drag is men dressing up as women for entertainment. Maybe I'm transgendered, but I don't do drag.
"I wear makeup, but so does Little Richard. There is a feminine component, but that's so far from what I'm doing. I love emotional singing, and a lot of those singers are female, but good singing crosses that boundary of gender."
It's been a few years since Antony and the Johnsons have released any new material, and what's been released isn't easy to get. Fortunately, Secretly Canadian has picked him up and will be releasing a new album in August, and presumably re-releasing the back catalogue.
"This one is going to be more intimate, more personal, and has a lot of guests. There's Boy George, Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart, who's my favourite these days - he's great."
On Saturday he'll be playing a lot of the new songs with a stripped-down lineup of Julia Dent on cello and himself on piano. Like many of his gigs, it's an event organized through the art scene, a world that's inherently more receptive to the edgier aspects of his person as well as the gender tension. Could the otherworldliness of his warbling tenor take him out of the avant-garde and into the pop world?
"I'd welcome it, but I don't know if that kind of thing happens any more. I've always been in more marginal worlds." firstname.lastname@example.org