The first two days of the Big Ears Festival have brought many interesting things to the stage in Knoxville.
But Antony and the Johnsons would have to be a highlight of any musical gathering, no matter how prestigious. Antony (Antony Hegarty) and his group appeared on the Bijou Stage at 8:35 p.m. Saturday and performed the first few numbers nearly in the dark.
In addition to Hegarty accompanying himself on piano, the band consisted of violins, a cello, drums, an electric bass and sometimes guitars or saxophones. Probably the best way to describe Hegarty is as a soul singer. In body, he is a tall Caucasian man with a voice that sounds somewhat womanly. It's a little like Freddie Mercury with a much more delicate touch crossed with Otis Redding if he had a feminine side.
Throughout the set, Hegarty proved what control he had over his vocal instrument, but it was rarely showy. Instead, he created an atmosphere that felt honest and natural. If you found that voice slightly disconcerting when he began, you were a believer within two minutes.
Hegarty's lyrics could be ethereal or just plain odd, but they were nearly always moving.
The song "Everglade" was absolutely beautiful.
Much of the effect came from the instrumentalists. The string section regularly provided chill bumps either with its ability to conjure beauty (the end of the song "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground") and create an unnerving tension. The players bowing their instruments almost painfully slowly on the song "Another World" gave the song an ominousness that isn't present on the recorded version of the song.
The song "Shake the Devil," began with an electronic whir augmented by spooky strings, but then changed to a stripped down R&B number with only drums and (amazing) saxophone.
If the show weren't surprising enough as it was, Hegarty chose to cover Beyonce's "Crazy In Love." Crazy move? No. It was surprisingly good.
Throughout the show, Hegarty casually joked with the audience, asked questions about the Bijou and Knoxville, and at one point lauded praise on the Big Ears Festival itself.
"I wish we had something like this in Manhattan," he said. "Seriously."At another moment, Hegarty joked that he planned to move to Knoxville.
Wayne Bledsoe may be reached at 865-342-6444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also the alternating host of "All Over the Road" midnight Saturdays to 4 a.m. Sundays on WDVX-FM.
© 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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