After our fleeting but fun-filled trip to Hay-on-Wye, the bank holiday adventures continued with a visit to Bristol and yet more cultural exploits. The last time we'd visited Bristol was to catch up with a friend who was working in the Revolution bar, and we spent most of our time hanging out there with her. I don't think we saw the best of the city from that perspective, so it was nice to go back and get the tour from some other friends who recently moved there (though are thankfully not working in bars).
Our very picturesque and sunny drive took us down through the Welsh mountains, and we arrived with our hosts mid afternoon. After the obligatory cup-of-tea-and-catch-up, we wandered down to the waterfront for a drink and some people-watching. By early evening it was still scorching hot, and the world and his wife were lining the streets and bar terraces.
Apart from catching up with friends, the other main purpose of the Bristol visit was to see Antony & the Johnsons live at Colston Hall. Tickets for the Brighton show had sold out before I’d heard about it, and Bristol was the next nearest - so I’d suggested it to Shaun and Morwenna and they’d been game.
I’m not used to sit-down gigs, and this was in a proper theatre, with proper seats. We had an excellent view from one of the side galleries, which when I tell you about the support act, you will realise was both a blessing and a curse. Rather than get an up-and-coming band to warm up for him, Antony had chosen instead to employ the talents - and I use that word derisively - of a ‘contemporary dancer’.
This ‘dancer’ appeared on stage in a disturbing mutated animal costume and proceeded to flap her arms around to grinding industrial music. There was no ‘dancing’ of any sort, and this bizarre and entirely unmoving spectacle went on for what seemed like hours. It was in reality about 15 minutes. Which is actually a long time to sit and watch someone flapping their arms. Ant whispered to me that he was going to his ‘happy place’ while I continued to gape open-mouthed, recoiling in horror when the rest of the audience actually applauded, presumably out of relief rather than appreciation.
Finally the band appeared on stage, at least we presumed it was them - the lack of lighting meant we couldn’t be sure. But when that unmistakable voice soared out of the darkness, we knew it was Antony’s, and the horror of the travesty to which we had just been subjected began to melt away. By the end of the first song, darkness still prevailed. Someone wailed from the audience “when do we get to see you?”, to which a shy voice replied “just a minute”. Gradually the lights did come up a bit, but it still felt more like a dingy basement than a 2000 seater concert hall. Presumably this was intentional, and it certainly didn’t detract from the power of the performance.
I think I must have been the only person in the audience to have actually listened to the new album (it’s good), because everyone else seemed totally fixated on the material from the (ahem, Mercury winning) I Am a Bird Now, clapping at the start of songs whose opening chords they recognised. I found this odd, and rather rude behaviour. It’s like saying “I don’t care about your new material, I only want the ones that were on TV”. But a forbearing Antony took it on the chin, gracefully indulging their mainstream appetites.
Occasionally he would talk between songs, revealing a little of the man behind the voice. A quirky, droll and somewhat sheepish individual, he is clearly more comfortable singing or spinning fanciful stories than engaging in the sort of idle banter employed by most musicians. I found this trait utterly endearing and it made the music even more affecting. The singing voice itself - at once tender and powerful - is a strange and beautiful thing which I have grown to love dearly over the years. To hear it full-blast and up-close was truly magical - and I think all four of us were unexpectedly moved by the occasion.
The next day we went for a hearty breakfast at The Boston Tea Party, followed by the grand tour of the city - including a boat trip and a walk along the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge. Still buzzing from the gig, and enjoying the good company of friends, it was the perfect end to a lovely anniversary weekend.
Photo: Banksy street-art in Bristol by Heatheronhertravels on Flickr