When Anna Calvi stepped onto the stage at the Arches to burst into a trio of singles spanning her two albums (‘Suzanne and I’, ‘Eliza’, ‘Suddenly’), a hushed reverence swept over the crowd. This is not an artist that responds to a raucous, baying crowd, desperate and blood thirsty for hooks and banter. Calvi is an artist that begs to be listened to and watched carefully, to have her skills and talent appreciated, like an intricate watercolour in a grand museum. She wields her guitar, not like a weapon, but as an extension of herself – it is visibly apparent that her talent on the instrument is so natural and effortless. Her voice, at times a howl and at times a whisper, commands attention. With the spotlight and darkness and coloured lighting, there is something otherworldly and surreal as the Spanish-inflected tones of her guitar strums echo out, like a standalone musical number in a David Lynch film – her gaze is entrancing.
Something seems to be missing though. It is as if she is withholding from us. Her backing band shrink into the shadowy background, all focus on the slight figure behind the microphone. This feeling only lasts a few songs as it soon becomes apparent what Calvi’s true strength in a live setting is. For all the hype and plaudits that I could heap on her voice and words, she is at her most powerful when she lets her guitar do the talking. After listening to her studio work, it is obvious that she doesn’t want to let her ability on the axe affect her songwriting – too often great guitarists can get lost noodling around on a six-string trying to impress, leaving any whiff of an actual song trailing in their midst. Calvi has managed to ride this thin line, keeping her guitar goddess personality out of the studio in all but the most necessary moments. However, on stage, on tracks like ‘Cry’, ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ and ‘Love of My Life’, she comes out of her self-imposed exile, letting rip with a squall of noise, feedback and distortion, manipulating her guitar in ways that Jimi Hendrix would be proud of. On the latter, she even grinds her guitar strings against the mic stand. Even in those grungy moments, she still maintains a steely composure, never sacrificing technical ability for carnage.
These moments are the most satisfying of the night. The highlight comes midway through ‘Carry Me Over’ (from her second record One Breath) when, without the orchestral production flourishes of the record she, her guitar and the rest of the band plunge into a driving krautrock instrumental breakdown; the wall of noise she is producing from her fingertips careering throughout the venue. The contrast between the softer moments – when Calvi’s whispers seem louder than the rattling drum beat and humming organ behind her – and the feeling of climax and euphoria are what make the show a triumph.
Brian Eno recently described Anna Calvi as “the best thing since Patti Smith”. Following in the CBGB legend’s footsteps by covering a Bruce Springsteen song (in Calvi’s case, the track ‘Fire’), this commanding and charismatic performance will not put paid to that weighty comparison.
Photo: Jean Baptiste Mondino