Thursday, October 21, 2010

Musical memories - No 1. Antony finally opens his mouth

I’ve been to a lot of gigs in my time and have seen more bands than I can recall. Some were mind-blowing, some terrible, most have landed somewhere between being slightly below average and quite good. I have experienced, though, a few occasions that make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I think of them. Not necessarily entire gigs, but just something - a moment, a song - that endures where other memories fade. I thought I would share a few of these via occasional posts here. First up, a moment that took my breath away.

It all started at 9pm on a balmy summer night in Sydney in 2007. The Sydney Festival was in full swing and, as always, there was a booth in the city centre that sold a limited number of tickets for every show for just $25. The catch was that you could only get these tickets on the morning of the performance. With Lou Reed set to play his Berlin album in its entirety at The State Theatre, I decided to queue all night in order to secure a ticket. The 12 hours that I lined up for were amazing fun and transformed the gig into an awesome two-day experience. Friendships were born that exist to this day as members of Sydney bands Bridezilla, Whipped Cream Chargers and Chicks Who Love Guns hung out, played cards and gently strummed guitars while we all waited for the sun to appear from behind the high-rises and signal the opening of the box office. By just after 9am, the queue snaked for blocks. Some people were cosily tucked up in sleeping bags, some were dozing away the effects of the previous night’s alcohol, others were dressed in suits, ready for a day at work. Many would miss out on tickets. I, however, pasty-faced and bleary-eyed, would soon be making my way home, ticket in hand, for a few hours’ sleep before the big night ahead.

After all that, the Berlin show didn't turn out to be as remarkable as I’d hoped. Maybe I was simply too tired to fully appreciate it. The night before had left me feeling jetlagged, and my vantage point - standing at the back of a seated theatre - didn’t fully immerse me in what was happening onstage. Also, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated that, to the left of the stage, Reed had two backing singers that he was barely utilising. They were Sharon Jones and the unmistakable figure of Antony (and the Johnsons) Hegarty. I really wanted them to open their lungs but, at best, they were bit players.

The gig came and went, Reed shuffled off the stage and I presumed that was the end of a good, if not great, evening. However, after a few minutes of applause, Reed and co came back for an encore. Having already played Berlin in full, it dawned on my sleepy brain that there was every chance he would bust out some hits. Excited, my newfound buddies and I sprinted down the aisle towards the front of the venue, avoiding rugby tackles from security guards on the way to join a crowd of about 100 of people who had left their seats to create an impromptu standing area before the stage (from where I took the picture of Reed at the top of this post). From feeling as though I was barely at the gig at all, I was now almost within touching distance of the great, grumpy man.

The encore was fantastic. Spurred on by a crowd who were by now all on their feet, Reed belted out three tracks, including Sweet Jane, in which Jones got to let loose. It was during Candy Says that, at long, long last, Antony got his moment in the spotlight.

Of course, the harsh glow of the spotlight is not something that the singer especially likes and he awkwardly hid his hands inside his sleeves and shuffled uncomfortably, but, holy smoke, when he opened his mouth unaccompanied, some 90 minutes into the gig, it was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever experienced. His voice was truly otherworldly, like the saddest of angels singing, and it transcended everything that came before and after it in the State Theatre that evening. I was transfixed, mesmerised and awe-struck. I lost my breath. Not in a metaphorical sense, I remember literally struggling to breathe as the air seemed to disappear from my lungs. Amid an otherwise fairly raucous encore, I recall a gasp from the audience as the first note left Hegarty's mouth and then complete silence and serenity filled the room until his turn ended to a crowd reaction that bordered on pandemonium. As I walked out into the warm Sydney night, it was in the knowledge that this moment - along with the camaraderie of the previous night - would live with me forever.

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