Antony and the Johnsons | Auditorium Parco della Musica, Sala Santa Cecilia | 29 March, 2009

Antony Hegarty performed to a capacity crowd in Sala Santa Cecilia at the Auditorium, Parco della Musica on Sunday evening together with his six-piece band - which included Johnsons stalwart Julia Kent on cello – in one of the most eagerly anticipated concerts of the season. The atmosphere was electric as Antony came on stage in almost total darkness, hidden in the shadows at his piano with the Johnsons so dimly lit as to be barely discernible. When the lights grew stronger, as if dawn were breaking over the performers, and Antony finally emerged, there was a burst of spontaneous applause as if this were a shy man needing to be coaxed out of his shell. As it turned out, he seemed in a relaxed and chatty mood, and was often dryly humorous in a self-effacing way, sharing anecdotes such as how he came to write the title track of his new release The Crying Light about the Japanese Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno (who is also on the cover of the album); or the highly personal experience of waking up in Ancona the previous day and looking out over the Adriatic sea as fine drizzle, almost like snow, blew onto his face as he stood on the balcony of his hotel room early in the morning – it was an entrancing, poetic moment - "Nature can be so terrible... and yet so tender," he said, then added with a giggle, "When she's in the mood!"

Whilst the studio versions of Antony's songs are superb, the experience of hearing the added depth and dynamism of when they are performed live – of hearing the magic of that unique voice singing live – can be incredibly moving, for this is a performer at the very height of his powers – both vocally and creatively. He is able to shift gears between the blistering power of songs such as the bluesy Shake That Devil or the pounding violence of the anthem to masochism Fistful of Love, and the emotionally devastating bleakness of Another World. Such is his versatility that we were even treated to a little country music with a wonderful cover of Dylan's I was young when I left home ("I'm not much of a country girl," he laughed).

Back on stage for the encore, Antony improvised a playful Ti Amo Roma to cheers from the audience saying that he'd just composed it! During the devastatingly beautiful I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy, again during the encore, Antony paused for a fraction between the song's prelude and main verses, and was met with a ripple of applause. "I haven't finished yet!" he said, and interrupted, sat in silence to recapture the moment, inviting the audience to do the same. Sadly, this was asking too much of some members of the public and so began a flurry of idiotic cajoling shouts from a handful of people who were simply incapable of sitting for a few moments and listening to the silence. Antony was the clear winner, of course, in what became a provocative battle of wills – he sat stoically at his piano staring out at us with a blankly benign expression for what may have been several minutes – I wasn't close enough to see if he blinked or not, but I like to think that he didn't. It was a brilliant piece of defiance and a reminder of his interest in performance art.

Hope There's Someone was the ideal closing song for an evening of sublime perfection. Antony and the Johnsons will be back in Rome at the end of July accompanied by the Rome Symphony Orchestra - miss them at your peril!