ANOHNI and The Johnsons live at the Barbican
…or else ANOHNI – transformed, transcendent, and risen like a phoenix – conjures up the spirit of the Johnsons and offers a career best performance at the Barbican.

I’ll try to put into words something of the energy we all felt coming from the stage last night that made us wiser, enlightened – and a bit sadder.

ANOHNI and The Johnsons live 2024By now, those familiar with the career of ANOHNI – but also those who experienced her music for the first time last night – know that soul, jazz, rock, and psych come out of her as something with a very different potency than previously experienced. Having followed her career since the early 2000s and having seen her three times throughout the years in key moments of this career, I can admit with some certainty that yesterday’s performance was the best of all. It was the first time ANOHNI talked so comfortably about her collaborators and their lives, and the first time that I felt she was addressing each of us individually with a nonchalance and a warmth that can only come when someone is feeling content and at ease without the need to entertain just for the hell of it.

Eight years ago, we witnessed a very different incarnation of the artist now known as ANOHNI. It was shortly before the release of ‘Hopelessness‘ that she had made public her decision to be addressed as ANOHNI (She/Her). It was after last night’s performance that I fully understood why, at the time of that announcement, we had seen a ghostly, opaque figure on stage, neither showing her face nor addressing the audience – a stripped down stage presence with two musicians in the shadows where the videos and the lyrics took centre stage and nothing else really mattered.

My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross‘ was released last year, with less visual drama compared to ‘Hopelessness’ but equally grave subject matter.

ANOHNI & The Johnsons cover

Bone-cracking personal stories, continuing to highlight the violence of the world towards transgender and gay bodies, a photo of gay rights activist and trans performer Marsha P. Johnson on the cover, well-placed anger and frustration at the growing environmental catastrophe, grieving odes to souls close to ANOHNI (e.g. the third co-founder of The Johnsons in the late 90s, Dr Julia Yasuda, who took her own life in 2018 at the age of 75 following years of struggle with chronic pain) were the backdrop for this album’s sound – and soul was the unquestionable refuge for the resulting feelings.

Last night’s performance was an amalgamation of ANOHNI and The Johnsons work, each song a step into a different year in the band’s career, each piece performed with added colour from the eight musicians that accompanied ANOHNI. Notes that ANOHNI and The Johnsons live photo 2024came from the cello (Julia Kent a long term collaborator of ANOHNI), violins (one of which was played my Maxim Moston a long term collaborator of ANOHNI, the other by Mazz Swift), guitars (Leo Abrahams and Jimmy Hogarth who produced the album ‘My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross’), piano, bass (Sam Dixon), and drums (Chris Vatalaro) with an arresting linger, adding to the fantastic contrast of ANOHNI’s vocal range. All the musicians, including the multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman, were introduced to us by ANOHNI, one of the very few musicians who introduce the whole band on stage on every gig. Songs and visuals that harked back to the days The Johnsons used to create these powerful experimental plays in the late 90s in spaces like The Kitchen in New York.

A white forest spirit as an omen opens the show

ANOHNI live photo 2024Amidst ominous drone sounds, one of the three Johnsons and long-term creative partner of ANOHNI, Johanna Constantine, traversed the stage disguised in the form of a white horned spirit, while ANOHNI manifests behind her dressed in white. The same spirit will take a black form at the end of the performance while the rest of the musicians would all be in white throughout the performance nodding to the stage presence of Jazz and Soul bands. The stage was left largely empty and free for ANOHNI to charge with her presence.

I don’t want to feel this aching colour of our world…” (lyrics: ‘Why Am I Alive Now?’)

Why Am I Alive Now?‘ kickstarted this performance, backed by a large screen which alternated recent video clips and archive footage from The Johnsons’ plays of the late 90s. Right after a snippet from an interview with Vito Russo (an American LGBT activist, film historian, and author of the book The Celluloid Closet),ANOHNI live photo4 Degrees‘ brought a heartfelt applause from the audience, ANOHNI addressed us, explaining what we were seeing in the videos, sharing stories about her friends and collaborators and about the ways their lives and their personalities contributed to her work and long-lasting relationships – amongst them Page Reynolds and Marsha P. Johnson. We heard many stories about transgender bodies taking on the ugliness and violence of this world to the point of self-destruction and our minds were treated with admirable kindness and artistic gratitude from ANOHNI, who has often shared her own ugly experiences in the world through her social media and articles.

With an angelic voice, an acquired wisdom, and a now liberated stage presence, she guided us through hard truths about queer bodies and minds throughout the concert. I have only had one other experience similar to this, in the privacy of my own house, when a close collaborator guided my younger mind into some hard truths about gay bodies and perceptions, with a similar spiritual gratitude – an experience which had a lasting effect.

ANOHNI and the Johnsons live photo 2024Promised a journey through ANOHNI’s career, we got it with songs that took us back to the sophomore album ‘I Am A Bird Now‘, such as ‘Man Is The Baby‘, ‘You Are My Sister‘, and ‘Hope There’s Someone‘. We might not have had ‘Twilight‘ or ‘Cripple And The Starfish‘ or any song from the debut album but these songs offered us incredible flashbacks to our own lives in the 2000s at the beginning of Antony and the Johnsons’ career and to those early gigs some of us had attended. ‘Everglade‘, ‘Another World‘, and ‘Her Eyes are Underneath The Ground‘ from the Mercury Prize winning album’ The Crying Light‘ released in 2009 and ‘Cut The World‘ the title song from the album of 2012 made sure to close the circle of this career-spanning setlist.

An extract from Marsha P. Johnson’s interview and the phrase “Nobody likes homosexuals, nobody wants homosexuals…anything you do will not help us…” gave way to the heartwarming performance of ‘Manta Ray‘ – one of two incredible moments of brilliance in this concert – with a forest scene as its backdrop.

Cut The Word‘ – followed, giving way to ‘Hopelessness‘ and ‘It Must Change‘. A hilarious moment was just around the corner, the moment when I was convinced that this was a changed performer, confident, content, and wise. Right after ‘You Are My Sister‘ we learned that ANOHNI’s actual sister, who wasANOHNI and The Johnsons live photo in the audience last night, got mad at first as she thought this song was written about Boy George – “Yes, Boy George is my other sister but I actually wrote this song for my fucking sister!” said ANOHNI – and the whole theatre was amused. There was no room for such lightness in ANOHNI’s previous performances and this is not something to ignore.

The second moment of brilliance during this performance was the cover version of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child‘ originally sung by Little Jimmy ANOHNI live photoScott. Following an enlightening introduction about the life of the jazz vocalist, his struggle with Kallmann syndrome, and his relationship with ANOHNI who performed at his funeral, we were offered the most empowered delivery of this song’s lyrics in its history. I can only hope that this can be officially released at a later date so that I can enjoy it on repeat. ANOHNI’s vocal range encompasses the ethereal and the powerful at the same time, but very rarely in her career have we had the opportunity to enjoy the bass notes in this range. It was a glorious moment when these came out to channel the power of this song’s lyrics in a way that has not been done before.

You know how people always say that light is the opposite of darkness? It’s not always like that…

During this gig we learned more about Dr Julia Yasuda and we watched very rare footage of her on video. She wanted to come back to life as her second cat when she lived in Tokyo. ANOHNI said she considers Julia to be her holy ghost and with that thought we listened to ‘Can’t‘, an emotional response to the passing of a much-loved person. A short instrumental part gave ANOHNI the time to go off stage and transform once again. In a homage to Kazuo Ohno, the Butoh dance that had inspired the album ‘The Crying Light‘, ANOHNI reappeared on stage with a yellow mask reminiscent of Butoh face masks. The mask metamorphosed the person as usually happens during Butoh performances, and so ANOHNI started moving on stage – another rare occurrence.

Movement channelling a geisha or a fragile spirit

Throughout the set, in direct contrast with everything we have seen so far on stage from ANOHNI, she felt comfortable enough to let us into her own worldANOHNI live photo 2024 through a few, subtle, careful, and always discreet moves. They were interesting to see and we couldn’t help but feel her intention not to disturb some invisible energy. At another level, ANOHNI’s vocal range represents the opposing forces within the person, and it is the most dominant of these forces that are responsible for incredibly powerful ethereal and harsher rock versions of the songs we were offered yesterday.

ANOHNI absorbs the essence of soul and jazz and spits it out in psych

Drone Bomb Me‘ had ANOHNI sit down facing the screen at the back of the stage while Nola Taylor (a Manyjilyjarra language speaker born around 1956 at Wirrinyinyalkujarra. Nola is a Martu pujiman) was talking. ANOHNI live photoMan Is The Baby‘ included footage from ‘Miracle Now‘ one of The Johnsons’ plays performed at The Kitchen in 1996 which gave us a glimpse of Page Reynolds, a transgender performer and collaborator as ‘The Last Dolphin’ in that video. The song that closed the circle was ‘Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground‘ which ANOHNI performed wearing a lace headpiece and emitting a powerful, sparkling, penetrating gaze that held every one of us in its focus.


She stepped back to join her musicians once again and received an instant standing ovation from the whole theatre.

Johanna Constantine was to officially mark the end of the setlist – surrounded by ominous drone sounds, draped in black lace, a forest spirit showing its darker/injured side, before metaphorically shedding its skin to reveal a body covered in blood, a warrior emerging from battle defiant.

As transgender bodies, we are ancient…we carry something brutal but also beautiful

ANOHNI and the Johnsons live photo 2024ANOHNI came out one last time, now filling the position of the ninth musician that was ‘missing’ throughout the gig. ‘Hope there’s someone‘ saw her play the piano and sing as the official video clip starring Joey Gabriel followed a powerful speech that addressed all of us.

We need to have a preposterous hope and build resilience in untenable circumstances…

she said just before concluding the performance and waving goodbye simply by saying “Well London, that was it for tonight“.

A second standing ovation was persistent – it had already been 2½ hours but nobody was prepared to leave. The lights came on and the realisation that we hadANONHI and The Johnsons live photo 2024 witnessed something precious overcame everyone I saw around me. There was not a single person around me who did not turn to others saying how amazed they were with the performance. As the room emptied slowly, it felt that these thoughts had to be shared right there and then, a collective acknowledgement of the significance of the moment before the room fell silent again. A thought almost left unspoken…

“You know how light is the opposite of darkness? Well, it’s not always like that…”


P.S. ANOHNI thank you!

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