Anna Calvi, for me, released one of the standout albums of the last year; indeed, with PJ Harvey and Lykke Li leading a pack of innovative female singer-songwriters that also includes tune-yards and Janelle Monae (or “your freaky bitches”, as my partner refers to them all), she’s doing well in a crowded field so this ought to be a good gig, providing she could cut it live.
First, a brief mention for the support, a Minnesota band called (oddly enough) Halloween, Alaska. My first impressions weren’t too promising, competent but uninspiring, but they grew on me. With a guitarist seemingly modelling his look on Rivers Cuomo, a singer-keyboardist his on Chris Martin (a very bad sign), a bass player who looked like a young Bruce Willis and a drummer who looked scary, they ran through a variety of styles, really catching light during a song that had a Talking Heads/Prince-style pop-funk guitar sound. I liked them enough to gamble on their CDs at the concession stall.
On to the main act. Calvi started up with, as per the album, Rider To The Sea followed by No More Words, the first demonstrating that her superb guitar playing, at one point glissading like a harp, isn’t dependent on studio wizardry and the second that her voice was likewise for real. My god, the voice! Rich, warm and powerful, it dominated the whole set. Backing came in the form of drummer and percussion/harmonium (though not at all like the sounds Ivor Cutler made!), so there were frequently two sets of percussion simultaneously playing to give extra drama.
And that’s what Calvi is about. With her severe hairstyle, chic culottes-and-blouse and her vertiginous heels, her look is all about a classic glamour, her cover songs, Elvis’ Surrender and Edith Piaf’s Jezebel confirming that she looks to a very particular idea of what constitutes ‘rock’. You might think Piaf doesn’t have anything to do with rock but she had that same dramatic intensity that Calvi has and it is powerful stuff. Her very self-effacing and seemingly shy demeanour between songs was surprising, given her total immersion in the moment during them.
If I had to make one gripe it was that there was a dearth of new material; for the most part, what we got was what is on the album. While that is terrific, and while familiarity lends a gig security, I’d liked to have had more in the way of surprise and some indication as to whether we could expect anything new, or at least of comparable quality, on her next album. Maybe it’s too soon for that.
Anyway, as one punter shouted out in between songs, “Anna, you rock!”. Indeed she does.