There’s no denying that Antony Hegarty has a heck of a back-story, from a pervasive gender-identity conflict to an iconoclastic musical vision that made him the out-of-left-field winner of Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize, usually reserved for artists with a far higher profile. But once the fairy-tale narrative is shunted aside, is he able to deliver on purely musical grounds?
His Carnegie Hall debut would seem to answer that query with a resounding yes. While prone to the occasional lapse into camp (earlier in his career, the British-born Gotham resident was a regular in East Village drag shows), the singer flaunted a personal iconoclasm and an uncommon musical fluency.
The latter aspect was most evident in Hegarty’s choice of covers, which took in scenery as varied as “All Is Loneliness” (a dark tone poem by avant-garde street performer Moondog) and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me” (yes, the Whitney Houston chart topper).
Still, the perf was most affecting when he stuck to his own songbook — particularly pieces from his Secretly Canadian album “I Am a Bird Now.”
The Johnsons, a string-driven outfit whose top notes are cello, violin and the occasional accordion, split the difference between Weill-inflected cabaret and Tom Waitsesque arty blues. While the orchestrations were clever enough, the program’s most gripping pieces were those — like “Hope There’s Someone” — with the least cushioning.
Hegarty treats his piano bench as if it were a therapist’s couch. While that sometimes makes his outpourings somewhat uncomfortable to witness, it also accentuates the guileless vulnerability that is the heart and soul of his work. That was especially evident on a rending version of “For Today, I Am a Boy,” a song that showcased his arresting vocal range, which lights on a croon reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s as well a sultry wail worthy of Nina Simone.
There also were nods to the two performers who joined him onstage over the course of the evening. Jazz singer Jimmy Scott, whose tremulous alto is a clear precursor to Hegarty’s, took over during a pair of interludes, highlighted by a spectral “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Scott didn’t join forces with Hegarty, but longtime patron Lou Reed did, offering a tender version of “Candy Says” that — with its unlikely mesh of jaded resignation and wide-eyed hope — served as an appropriate capper for the evening.