Anna Calvi - Manchester Cathedral
“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” That Stravinsky, eh? He knew a thing or two. Old Igor, he knew about lifting from the past masters - he’d have clocked Anna Calvi as a supreme thief, guilty of unquestionable but laudable larceny. And then, no question, he’d have tried to sneak her into the Conservatoire for a nightcap and, if he was feeling lucky, a cheeky major seventh. Great artists: 2011 seems to have showered us with women whose creative urge coupled itself to a mode of expression as distinct as it is thrilling, frightening, irresistible. All of them purloin expertly from the classics (ie. not the short-sightedness that relies on the effect of dreary 1990s blokey guitar pop). Alongside Calvi sit the likes of Sarabeth Tucek, Nicole Atkins, EMA, Zola Jesus - each of them employing their sharp individuality to daub shapes we’ve seen before with colours we hardly recognise.
But place your bets now. Because Calvi, potentially, could have taken a furlong or more off each of them by the time she hits the winning post - which she surely will. They come out in their hundreds for her tonight. How many souls does it take to fill Manchester Cathedral ? Dunno. I’d love to turn you onto her devastating live capabilities. But the sold out signs suggest no need. Like Florence (another wilful individual who the masses gradually acclimatised to), people have picked up on Calvi’s deeply complex brew (flamenco, blues, soul, torch song reverie) and her dark secret is out. Her sumptuous debut, bafflingly pipped for the Mercury by a decent enough (and that’s all) effort from the old guard, is one of the year’s essential albums, a noir treasure whose riches emerge slowly but shine, ooh, forever.
So, Calvi at the Cathedral. The Cure in Orange. Pink Floyd at Pompeii. Mmm. Okay, but you see where I’m going? Tonight, the venue doesn’t so much dominate proceedings but it informs them with a quality that your Shitsville Academy would struggle to come anywhere near. Those moments where near silence descends and she walks that high wire, band pulling back and her vocals no more than a whisper, those moments need support. And it comes in the form of a 100ft high ceiling, a vast expanse of centuries-old stone and an audience hanging on every word for dear life. She plays the album, pretty much, in order. ‘Rider to the Sea’ merges into ‘No More Words’, an opening that’s just her and her Telecaster as one, two minutes of fretwork that splinters the synapses. We look on, tense – but in a good way. You can sense expectation. The technique, seen up close and personal, is impressive and then some. Other commentators have praised her for being a really good female guitarist: in other words, she’s not bad…for a woman. Hmm. She’s just a really fucking good guitarist, right?
Backed by regular two piece, Daniel Maiden-Wood (drums – excellent) and Mally Harpaz (everything), she manages to add depth and layer to her recorded form in a master class of less is more. ‘Suzanne and I’ is monstrous, its ringing, shadowy guitar riff like Charlie Burchill on cloud nine with The Edge. ‘Desire’ gets all levitational, its closing bars, where Calvi doubles in volume and steps back from the mic, something to behold. ‘Blackout’, where Maiden-Wood shines, and a stunning, daringly drawn-out ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ are ovation-winning. The latter sees huge applause for its extended solo part-way through. Head-scratcher – when, since about 1976, did you last see that?
How she’s sneaked this fevered soul under the public nose is some artistic sleight of hand. So beautiful but so undeniably unexpected and strange, a synthesis of influences so removed from the workaday, you’d have thought we’d have been too distracted to notice or too scared to dive in. But, for once, no. As she fires up for a closing blast of Piaf’s ‘Jezebel’, clad as ever in that trademark red and black, there’s a collective frisson of self-congratulation. And why not? Time for a pat on the back, eh, people? As we exit, borne on this wave of self-awareness, we drop a couple of quid in the collection box and ask forgiveness. Pride is a sin, after all.