I will often bore my more unfortunate friends to tears by constantly harping on about the idea of expectation in popular music (I say “friends”, plural, but it’s mostly my long-suffering partner). If there is one thing in a concert or record that will endear a rock or pop act to me, it’s their ability to surprise me or confound my expectations. It’s for this reason that I consider the latest Deerhunter, My Bloody Valentine and, arguably, Bowie albums to be beyond dull, whilst The Knife’s Shaking The Habitual stands as one of the best albums of the year. If I needed more of the sound of 1991 from Kevin Shields et al, I’d have just played Loveless again, perhaps in surround sound.
Antony Hegarty manages to surprise me from the moment tonight’s performance gets underway in the elegant surroundings of London’s plush Royal Opera House, as the concert starts with a bizarre dance/performance art intro by a woman dressed in an outlandish bird-like outfit (the show is called Swanlights) over coarse, driving lines of reverberating electronica. It’s a baffling, almost abstract overture, one that doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the show, but throws a decisive spanner in the works from the get-go, proving that Hegarty cannot be so easily shoehorned under the “chamber song” label as I had thought. Indeed, even though the rest of the concert features (mostly) familiar songs, as always guided by piano and fleshed out by lush orchestral arrangements performed admirably by the Britten Sinfonia, there is a constant sense that Swanlights offers Antony the chance to reconsider his past output in new(ish) light.
Compared to other performances I’ve seen of Hegarty’s (on the internet), in Swanlights he takes leave of the piano to stand centre stage, resplendent in a white gown and amplifying the emotional impact of his songs with simple gestures and movements, the whole performance given an almost spectral quality through the use of lights and lasers. I have to admit to being less impressed, or maybe more baffled, by the large, apparently cardboard sculpture that looms over his head like an abstract comet, or the sequence of screens that gradually lift to reveal the Sinfonia, but these are minor quibbles in a stage design that otherwise finds the right balance between the intimacy that befits Antony Hegarty’s music and the loftiness that a venue like the ROH might require.
But of course, the main draw of Swanlights is the songs. Hegarty has built up a solid, often spectacular set of lush ballads, and the audience in Covent Garden clearly adore every moment. Fans of I Am A Bird Now, his 2005 hit record, will have been disappointed at the lack of songs from that album (only ‘For Today I’m A Boy’ made the cut), but I think Hegarty can be forgiven for being sick to death of them. Highlights are numerous, from the lush, cinematic glory of ‘Cripple And The Starfish’ and ‘I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy’, to the more stripped-down grace of ‘The Crying Light’ and ‘Another World’, via a wonderful surprise in the form of a hilarious cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy In Love’. Like I said, I like to be surprised and, even if most songs are similar to their studio counterparts, except bolstered with greater orchestration, the mere presence of such a curveball as a pop/r’n’b smash hit is enough to have me smiling. Hegarty is an endearing, touching performer blessed with a miraculous voice, and to have his work displayed and celebrated in such surroundings, propelled by such talented musicians and emphasised with light and shadow, is a thrill unto itself. Everything else is icing on a truly lovely cake.