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Review: Anna Calvi – Festival Marquee, CQAF 2019

Anna Margaret Michelle Calvi is an eclectic (and electric) musician for sure. A multi-instrumentalist and double Mercury Prize nominee (2011, 2013) and also Mercury judge, she reports being influenced by a huge swathe of composers and musical genres. This is apparent in the people that she has collaborated with since she released her self-titled debut album in 2011 –  PJ Harvey, Brian Eno, Marianne Faithfull and Johnny Flynn early on, then more recently with Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Martyn Casey (The Bad Seeds).

Calvi’s live shows are renowned for their intensity and drama and are frequently infused with themes of romance, religion, lust and sexual energy; the same is true for music videos such as “Hunter” and “As A Man” -she plays with gender roles and identities to create something that is fresh and challenging. Her forceful and passionate guitar style led to The Independent describing her as a “strumming seductress” and she is noted to have a fairly unusual and unique style of playing, often working to create sounds that come from instruments other than her favourite Fender Telecaster.

Support tonight comes from Mark McCambridge (Aka Aborist) and he gives us a short but very pleasant solo set. Highlights were two tracks from his debut album, Home Burial “A Man of My Age” and “Dark Stream.” “A Man of My Age” is played with the same catchy guitar lick and works every bit as well the full album versions. McCambridge ends with an intriguing new track “The Mountain Will Come To You” and this comes over as a soft ¾ time tune.

Once the lights go out, there’s no doubt that we are in for a performance from the headline act. In darkness we are bombarded by a huge wall of electronic sound complimented by choral voices which actually makes the marquee seats vibrate. Calvi takes the stage bathed in blood-red lights and immediately launches into the instrumental “Rider To The Sea.” This rough, loud and edgy and it slides effortlessly into the slow waltz rhythm of “No More Words.” One song in and already you can’t help but be struck by her commanding presence on stage.

Her guitar playing is sublime; delicate when it needs to be, loud and threatening when she feels the need. Songs like “Swimming Pool” are delivered in a sensuous and dark style, with Calvi’s soaring vocals speaking of waves of desire and diving down. She comes out of this and crashes headlong into “Suzanne and I”, full of chopping guitar chords and wailing chorus.

“As A Man” and “I’ll Be Your Man” are played back-to-back and I’m struck by the variety of Calvi’s material. Each song is different, sometimes subtly so, and this gives her set an air of excitement where you’re never quite sure what is coming next. There are nods towards blues, jazz and world music influences and even punk styling on some choruses. “Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy” is a delight, starting with Calvi’s wonderful high vocals on the chorus contrasting with her breathless and whispered lyrics during the verses.

All of this is underpinned by guitar chops and licks that bring Hendrix to mind. “Indies or Paradise” is a ferocious, deafening and beautiful rock number that summons the ghosts of Led Zeppelin and King Crimson. This ends abruptly and Calvi says “thank you” and “goodnight.” I automatically checked my watch to discover that she had only been on stage for 50 minutes. She returns to do a pounding and atmospheric version of the old Frankie Laine song “Jezebel” and makes this sound like it had been lifted from one of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western soundtracks.

And just like that it’s over. This was an all too short set but it was a total revelation. Loud, in-your-face and unrelenting from start to finish, I can’t recall ever hearing as much sheer distortion, fuzz and noise from a single guitar and an amp. Calvi plays and sings wonderfully and as a solo show I was completely blown away by the power, confidence and authority of her presence on stage. A serious contender for the best gig of CQAF 2019.

Photographer and sometime reviewer with an eclectic taste in all things visual and musical. Still struggles to understand jazz.