Thursday, February 13, 2014

Siren's Call

All Saints is an imposing church on the corner of The Drive and Eaton Road in Hove. Built as part of the late 19th century Gothic revival, its sandstone exterior and roof of Sussex oak provide it with a subtlety lacking in other Victorian churches with their brutal flint and brick. Once inside, the wide nave and gracefully tall arcades at either side give it a cathedral-like quality; an ideal space, then, for Anna Calvi to project the soaring sound of her swirling and slashing guitar playing and the perfect pitch of her voice.

Calvi, whose superb second album One Breath was released last autumn, completed a short series of British dates in Sussex on Tuesday night before heading across the Channel to play in France, Germany, Switzerland and, her father’s homeland, Italy. Opening with Suzanne and I, one of the two tracks from her eponymous debut album that featured Brian Eno, she then moved on to a trio of the most impressive songs from One Breath: the infectious refrain of Suddenly, the alluring siren’s call of Sing To Me and Cry, a track where Calvi effortlessly moves from Duane Eddy’s twang to Hendrix’s virtuosity. Reverting to her debut album for several songs, and a cover of Elvis’s Surrender, she then continued with the latest album: the menacing break-up song Piece by Piece was followed by the peerless and plaintive Carry Me Over.

Backed by an understated drummer and two multi-instrumentalists – one with hand-pumped harmonium the like of which I have not seen since Nico’s attempts to soothe the warring punks and skins on the Siouxsie and the Banshees tour of 1978 – the sound is complex and clear, and Calvi’s sometimes whispered vocals are listened to in respectful silence by the audience (the lack of an alcohol licence is clearly the best deterrent for gig-chatterers). And the austerity of her image - kohl-eyed mute meets the black and red of the male flamenco dancer – adds to this to create a taut and dramatic atmosphere.

The mood is punctured temporarily when Calvi speaks to announce a Bruce Springsteen cover. But when she dismisses the band and performs a bare-boned version of Fire, the tone of brooding menace is quickly restored. Once the band returns, the final few songs of the evening contain Calvi’s first three singles: 2011’s Desire and Blackout are followed by the set closer, her improbable re-working of the 1951 Frankie Laine hit, Jezebel. And, given the lyrics in this ecclesiastical setting, “if ever the devil was born/without a pair of horns/it was you”, deliciously incongruous.

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