Bloomsbury Theatre, London
This was a special occasion marking Current Ninety Three's first London performances since 1997 and the exquisite Antony and the Johnsons first ever British performances. The events originally scheduled for November were postponed to allow Tibet to recuperate after his near death experience last year. Given that, it was fortunate that this event took place at all. Expectations were naturally running high.
Backworld opened the first evening. Unfortunately we were running late (as always) and missed much of Backworld's set. Compared to their previous London show tonight Backworld had ditched the keyboards, kept the cellist and gained a drummer and extra guitarist. Backworld, like Ostara, have honed their sound into something more mainstream while maintaining the themes. The music once clearly fitting in the apocalyptic folk bracket has now veered into psychedelic folk territory with shimmering guitarlines. Budenholzer's Blakean vision has now matured into what some have already called an almost REM guitar styled sound. It's not a complete change in direction,however, as Backworld still delivered versions of tracks from Anthems From The Pleasure Park, alongside new tracks from Of Silver Sleep. Sorrow's Robert Lee provided occasional violin accompaniment but once again the highlight remained Joe's duet with Rose McDowall's on the excellent 'Devil's Plaything'. Overall it appears that Of Silver Sleep is guaranteed to be Backworld's most distinctive and essential release. Pantaleimon were the opening act on the second night but again we missed the beginning of the set. Pantaleimon is Andria Degens, a sometime member of Current Ninety Three and Nurse With Wound. As beautiful and as radiant as ever, Andria plucked and strummed a variety of acoustic devices to produce Pantaleimon's soothing and simplistic music. At times Andria was aided by the cellist from Sorrow, and Backworld's Joe Budenholzer. One of the highlights from Pantaleimon's debut Trees Hold Time, 'Sitting On The Mountain of Suan Mok', was bolstered with additional female vocals. Pantaleimon consistently imbue their plaintive and meditative sound with something spiritual and tonight's performance was by far Pantaliemon's most proficient and accomplished outing yet.
On both nights Antony and The Johnsons were preceded by industrialised rhythms and primal dancing from Johanna Constantine, followed by introductions from the androgynous Dr Julie Yasuda. On the first night decked out in a white trouser dress suit Dr Yasuda presented a speech proclaiming America the great. If anyone was unsure of our announcer's sexuality any questions were dispelled the following evening. Naked except for stars'n'stripes body paint this seemingly ageless blonde haired Japanese woman, who from where we were sitting resembled a flawless Joan Rivers, introduced the Johnsons via Morse code. Strange stuff indeed.
Antony and the Johnsons eponymous CD held high positions in many end of year polls, so it was a much-anticipated performance and in no way did it disappoint. Antony swooned onto the stage looking beautiful, flamboyant and on the first night appeared as nervous as hell. He needn't have been because as soon as the first sounds of 'Twilight' emanated from his lips the auditorium was enthralled. The Johnsons Orchestra consisting of a cellist, two violinists, pianist, drummer and guitarist provided the beautiful swirling backing to Antony's sweet soulful croon. Dressed in a taffeta top Antony soared through 'Cripple and the Starfish', 'Hitler In My Heart' and others from their debut CD along with the heart stopping 'I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy'. I defy anyone not to be moved by the extended pause in that song. The hush, the silence, the intimate thoughts. A beautiful moment - both nights! It wasn't until he launched into Nina Simone's 'I'll be Your Husband, You Can Be My Wife' during the first show that Antony appeared to relax and strut the stage like the loveable queen that he is. As he lay across the stage it became obvious why Antony's NYC performances at Joe's Pub have become legendary. Antony explained that 'River of Sorrow' was inspired by one of his heroines, the gay activist Marsha Johnson who mysteriously drowned in the Hudson River. Johnson formed STAR (Street Transvestite Activist Revolution) an organisation that provided support for runaway transvestites in NYC
On the second night Antony appeared more confident with a set consisting mainly of new songs including a beautiful track about a crestfallen bird. Once again the audience were treated to 'Cripple and the Starfish', 'Deeper Than Love' plus David Lynch's 'Mysteries of Love'. He flirted, swapped pleasantries and quite literally transfixed the audience. 'You're gorgeous' a Glaswegian voice bellowed from the crowd. Antony blushed. It was obvious that the Johnsons had stolen the hearts of everyone in the room. Criticisms? Oh apart from not getting the opportunity to hear the Johnsons' version of the Ronettes 'So Young' really there are none. Antony's star is obviously in ascendance and these shows may have been the (first and) last opportunity for us Brits to catch the Johnsons in a mid-sized venue.
A premature introduction followed when Joolie Wood's young son announced the arrival of Current Ninety Three thirty five minutes too early. Kids, huh? Tibet took to the stage following the announcement Current Ninety Three : God Is Love. The core unit for Current Ninety Three for these shows featured Sundial's Gary Ramon on electric guitar, Joolie Wood on a variety of instruments and the illustrious Michael Cashmore on acoustic guitar. They opened the first performance with a stirring 'Fields of Rape' that veered particularly close to Death In June's version with it's crushing climax. Barefooted and dressed in a green corduroy jacket, and cut-off trousers, Tibet, for most of the night, appeared almost detached and subdued. Perhaps he was nervous after so many years absence from live performances or daunted by having to follow Antony and the Johnsons' immaculate performance. 'Good Morning Great Morloch', 'Immortal Bird' and new tracks from Bright Yellow Moon all followed. Interestingly the best response went to the older and more jaunty folk oriented moments such as 'In The Heart of The Wood' and 'A Sadness Song' which naturally featured the bittersweet tones of Sorrow's Rose McDowall.From the rear of the stage a seated Michael Cashmore delivered his customary acoustic backing beautifully while full credit should be given to the talented Joolie Wood who swapped between recorder, flute, harp and harmonium.
As the night progressed Tibet was accompanied by Maja Elliot on piano to deliver material from Soft Black Stars and Sleep Has His House. From this point onwards Current Ninety Three moved from their customary folk sound to something more intimate and personal. Stripping the sound down to piano and lone voice the audience sat silent as Tibet in reflective manner delivered 'Antichrist and Bar Codes' and 'Soft Black Stars' before airing more new material to close their initial set. For the encore Karl Blake, sporting his famous brass waistcoat, came on stage to sing an early Shock Headed Peters' number backed by piano accompaniment. This was followed by Current Ninety Three who performed another couple of tracks before closing with 'The Descent of Long Satan & Babylon'. For whatever reasons the initial performance seemed strained. Tibet rarely appeared to relax and his overall demeanour was quite unsettling. It was, in its own way, utterly compelling to watch Tibet communicate the frailty of life, and in his own way the search to attain the inmost light.
The poet (and author) Jeremy Reed opened the second night sprinkling stardust during his recital. 'Good Morning Great Morloch' opened the second performance that featured a reassembled version of the previous night's set from a group "who may or may not be Current Ninety Three". While various aspects of Current Ninety Three's work has focussed on Tibet's eschatological ruminations, tonight, like the previous night, the set revolved around Soft Black Stars and the more recent Sleep Has His House, a deeply unsettling record documenting Tibet's outpouring of grief and loss over his father's death.
Unlike the black atmospheric evocations of Nature Unveiled or the bizarre universal folk sounds of Swastikas for Noddy both Soft Black Stars and Sleep Has His House are of a self-reflective nature where Tibet's gaze is turned inwards to reveal and unravel his emotional thoughts. As such on the second night he appeared more involved but also more troubled and, at times, even terrified. It seemed he was carrying the world's pain on his shoulders or was still suffering from family bereavement.Wiping away tears he looked on the verge of breaking down. He looked fragile and it was, at times, quite uncomfortable to watch him bare his soul so openly. The strain of his father's death, his own near death experience and having his mother in attendance may have resulted in the intensity of his performance. The Inmost Light trilogy revealed itself in a passionate reading of 'The Bloodbells Chime', affectionately dedicated to his father in the Thunder Perfect Mind. 'Calling For Vanished Faces II', meanwhile, was particularly noteworthy as Tibet kneeled to chap on the stage floor to signify the 'doorknock of the Inmost Night'. Yet as the show progressed it became even more intimate, especially when Tibet delivered his deeply personal and poetic lyrics backed by a lone piano score.
When compared to previous shows for these performances Current Ninety Three appeared in a scaled down format. Perhaps the intimacy of the material, which Tibet delivers with the utmost conviction, necessitates a more simple approach. The focus appears to be on Tibet and his lyrical dexterity as he ruminates on the human condition. The music no matter how effective now seems to be mere atmosphere and embellishment.
However for the encores all the Current Ninety Three musicians including Joe Budenholzer, Rose McDowall, Karl Blake - and Joolie Wood's son on recorder - all performed a rousing version of a 'Oh Coal Black Smith'. By this point Tibet was in a more than optimistic frame of mind stomping his feet and gesturing wildly. Antony then retook the stage to provide a faltering back-up on 'A Gothic Love Song'. Then joined by a stylaphone Tibet launched in to the Carpenter's 'We've Only Just Begun'. Unfortunately it wasn't so. The extended Current Ninety Three family regrouped for the final time to perform 'A Sadness Song'. Fully autographed Noddy's were hurled into the audience before a heavily pregnant Alison Webster presented David with a bouquet of flowers from World Serpent.
Something special occurred on these nights that will leave a lasting impression on all those in attendance. Thanks to World Serpent and all the bands for a great evening.
Backworld - http://www.backworld.com
Pantaleimon - http://www.pantaleimon.com
Antony and the Johnsons - http://www.antonyandthejohnsons.com
Current 93 - http://www.durtro.com
World Serpent - http://www.worldserpent.com
Photographs by Patrick Hitthaler and Mareli. Thanks for allowing us to use them. More photographs from the show are available at: