Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons
Antony and the Johnsons, Cut the World. There are unique artists, and then there are unique artists. Put Antony at the very top of the latter list, and be glad for him. Since his initial emergence a decade ago, often in the company of Lou Reed's band, he has established his own genre, almost, and become more and more individualistic. He often sings in a high register, an eerie blend of ghostly soul, and skirts the fringes of transgender with total conviction. Others may see him as different; Antony likely sees himself as Antony.
Cut the World was recorded live with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, and completely captures the delicacy of a singer like Antony. His fragile approach to music also carries a strong dose of strength, creating an almost surreal surrounding to songs like "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy" and "Epilepsy is Dancing." Time stops as he slows lyrics to an emotion-heavy crawl, creating a zone of empathy that only the heartless could ignore. The man is hurting for the world, for the animals, for his fellow man, and there is just no way not to share that pain.
If he were so inclined, Antony would be able to ride on his individualistic approach to music as long as he wanted, but instead he continually pushes himself into new territory. Working with a chamber orchestra offers a myriad of new musical choices, and it's Antony's openness to the world which utlimately has become his calling card. By being like no one else, the singer has become a voice for everyone. Funny how life works out.
Little Feat, Rooster Rag. There aren't always second acts in rock and roll lives, but if anyone ever pulled off the feat with true aplomb it's this funky bunch from Southern California. After losing bandleader Lowell George in 1979 it really did seem Little Feat's days were way done. How to continue without the man who the rest of the band revolved around? The Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger? The E Street Band without Bruce Springsteen? Not likely. But the Feat took a break and came back at near full force and didn't so much replace George but rather gathered the strength within and came out blazing.
Of course, one of Little Feat's undeniable strengths was always drummer Richie Hayward. He powered the outfit with a mind-boggling finesse from the start, and Hayward's slinky blend of New Orleans funk shot through with American rock has rarely been equaled. Losing him was a major blow, but in true Feat fashion the boys are back, and new drummer Gabriel Ford sounds like he's found his own groove and then some. Also supplying a new jolt of creative juice is lyricist Robert Hunter, now writing with keyboardist Bill Payne and bringing some of his inspirational expression perfected with Jerry Garcia for so many years. With several bullseye songs by guitarist Fred Tackett, and the Paul Barrere-Stephen Bruton jewel of "Just a Fever," Rooster Rag ranks right up there with the band's very best albums.
Little Feat wrote the book at the start of the '70s for American groups who could dip into the roots of rock and roll, pull out an astounding mass of influences, and then carve their very own creation. The early albums confounded the masses, but the true believers went bananas. By their third release, Dixie Chicken, the stars had aligned and the boys made a play for the big spotlight. It worked too, but with it brought excesses that eventually took Lowell George out and left the band's die-hard followers scratching their heads. Today, Little Feat is firing on all cylinders, and even if no one can ever take George's place, those still there are doing just fine. The new album's subtitle, No Excuses No Regrets, says it all.
Donny Hathaway, Live + In Performance. Soul music in the '70s often seemed lost. Sure, Al Green and Johnny Taylor were walking on water, but there just wasn't the wave of greatness that had swept over the country during the '60s. After the turmoil of civil unrest and riots, it felt like the music was settling down. That's where Donny Hathaway comes in. His 1972 album Live might have sounded like it was tip-toeing in the front door, but sound can be disceiving. In reality, he was bringing a whole new feel to soul, and turning that inner tension into a flat-out revival. Hathaway might not have been living for tomorrow and didn't make it to see the '80s, but for the time he burned bright no one else surpassed his music. Listening to him onstage says it all.
The 1972 album Live, recorded at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and Bitter End in New York, might well be one of the finest sets ever captured onstage. There is a magic at its center which must be heard. It's the sound of one man's soul totally opening up, giving off the kind of light that is hardly ever seen but when it is, time seems to stop. Donny Hathaway has exactly the right musicians, capable of holding back but also pushing in the pinch, and he directs them seemingly with ESP. It's like watching a thoroughbred horse run — every movement is perfect and not a single one is wasted. As the audience joins in to sing the choruses to "You've Got a Friend," well, no finer moment exists on tape. The clouds really do part and for awhile life becomes purely perfect.
The second disc, In Performance, is right there too. When Hathaway takes on Leon Russell's "A Song for You," something happens that makes it seem impossible Hathaway didn't write it. His version of Morton Report regular Al Kooper's "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" holds a grip on the heart and won't let go, while the closing track, "Sack Full of Dreams," could be the theme song for every musician who had the power of belief in themselves that someday they would find a stage and change the world. Donny Hathaway did just that on nights when the spirits took over his soul and set him free. HIs voice, his piano, his being: everything aligned into one eternal glow. Do not let go.