It has been four years since Anna Calvi performed in Belfast. Touring for her latest album, Hunter, the BRIT and Mercury Awards nominee, renowned for her operatic vocals, returned to Belfast’s Empire once more. Transforming the venue into a nebulous roadhouse joint, her sound is like the OST for a modern Blue Velvet-esque noir and there’s no venue in Belfast that can enrich this aesthetic quite like The Empire.
A curated selection of records from Kitt Philippa and Claire Miskimmin preps the audience in lieu of live support. Calvi has previously claimed David Lynch films as one of her inspirations and the records selected lay down these Lynchian vibes from the moment you step into the venue.
The frenetic, rhythmic saxophone of Snake Eyes by Trouble (from Twin Peaks The Return soundtrack, FYI) filled the (suitably) red curtained Empire venue. A song lavishing in bluesey vibes so dark they’re verging on navy, it’s the perfect prelude for what’s to follow.
Entering the stage wordlessly, Calvi introduces the audience to her set with the languid bluesey guitar strokes of ‘Rider To The Sea’. Calvi has a wholly rock n roll ease of dexterity with her guitar, bashing riffs and incorporating the instrument into sensual swaying. As she hangs her head back, Calvi seems to reach another plain through the mere vibrations of her music. It’s refreshing to witness an artist so passionately entwined with her art. There’s a very minor technical issue during this first song causing a microphone buzz. This doesn’t even slightly derail Calvi’s attention from her guitar.
Instrumentals progress effortlessly into the first song of the set ‘Away’. It’s a slower choice to begin with which doesn’t set the tone for the rest of the show. This ruminative song eases the audience into a show that is turbulent in the best way.
Transitioning into ‘Indies or Paradise’, Calvi demonstrates her vocal prowess, beginning with intense whispers which transform into highs reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s ‘Rid Of Me’ which then revert back into operatic grandeur. It’s this diverse selection of vocals paired with equally varied instrumentals that make Calvi such an impressive artist, especially in light of the fact that she had a fear of singing throughout her teenage years. In an interview with The Telegraph Calvi revealed “I wouldn’t sing in school or even in the shower. I had this emotional block about hearing my voice. So the guitar became my voice when I was a teenager, it was how I could express myself.”
This emotional block has certainly been overcome since then. As Calvi belts out ‘As A Man’ and ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ in succession there is a certain sense of defiance. This defiance reaches a crescendo on ‘Alpha‘, a snarling, impassioned war cry rallying for power. “I divide and conquer” cries Calvi, wielding her guitar like a weapon. Vocals are momentarily isolated through an instrumental suspension that enhances the sheer bravado of this performance. The instrumentals kick back into action on the second syllable of “conquer” to dramatic effect, the militaristic percussion primal and provoking. By the end of ‘Alpha’ Calvi is a crumpled heap of curls and guitar on the stage floor, the energy of the performance well and truly spent.
‘Swimming Pool‘ is one of the highlights on Hunter and also one of the highlights of the set. A track straight out of a dreamy Lynchian universe, the off-kilter, distorted guitar melody undulates softly with Calvi’s signature operatic vocals to a beautiful but haunting effect. “Shadows of light, Shadows divide on the earth, Come down to the swimming pool” sings Calvi with a dark, mesmerising dramatism crystallising into the suggestion of something sinister beneath the surface.
For her encore Calvi treats the audience to ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ a throwback to her debut album. It’s the first time in the set that a range of elaborate instruments involving shells and twirls are being used.
Giving her vocals a rest after what has been an enthralling set, Calvi lets the distorted, screeching guitar of ‘Ghost Rider’ (Suicide cover) close the set. The sprawling, fuzzy guitar growls are reminiscent of Nirvana circa Bleach. It’s a strange way to close the set but as Calvi enigmatically leaves the stage with a word of thanks (her only non-singing words of throughout evening) it’s certain that it has been anything but an ordinary gig. Here’s hoping it won’t be another four years until she’s back in Belfast.