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Review: Anna Calvi, Boiler Shop, Newcastle

Anna Calvi's recent album Hunter is the strongest of her career.
Anna Calvi's recent album Hunter is the strongest of her career.

There’s little buzz prior to Anna Calvi’s appearance at the Boiler Shop; a curiously flat atmosphere ahead of what should be a hugely anticipated show.

One of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary songwriters, the Londoner has scored a Mercury nomination, earned widespread adulation for her live performances and, in Hunter, recently unveiled the strongest album of her career.

You’d expect a larger crowd too, for such an established and revered artist. It’s true that Wednesday nights are hardly ideal, but the lack of a support act seems a questionable route at best. There are some top tunes courtesy of guest DJs Blóm and Sophie Galpin, but it’s hardly stuff to whip up a patchy audience.

As such it’s almost 9.30pm before things get going, yet these qualms are rendered immaterial from the moment Calvi steps onstage.

Her backing duo contribute cavernous drums, synths and a selection of cymbals, bells and bangles, yet it’s the 38-year-old who dominates proceedings, turning in the type of virtuoso performance that’s fostered comparisons to such revered names as Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Jeff Buckley.

A cynical minority have accused Hunter of capitalising on current trends with its exploration of gender and sexuality, yet truthfully these themes have been front and centre of Calvi’s music from the beginning.

Anna Calvi on stage at Boiler Shop in Newcastle.

Anna Calvi on stage at Boiler Shop in Newcastle.

Certainly, there’s no escaping the quality of the songs on offer, and this is abundantly clear during the early stages as we’re treated to the yearning, synth-heavy title track and seductive strut and devilishly catchy hook of lead single As A Man.

As it turns out, Calvi’s recorded work offers but a snapshot of her true talents. Impressive enough in the studio, her vocals are force to behold in person, as adept in conveying raw power as they are intimacy, sensuality and vulnerability.

If anything, her guitar playing is more prodigious still. It’s rare to encounter a guitarist whose every lick feels as expressive as the words coming from their mouth, but that’s very much the case here, from her expert use of sparsity and silence to the visceral surges of energy which accompany each solo.

This multitude of gifts culminates in spectacular fashion towards the evening’s conclusion, and in particular during a knockout yet contrasting couplet which rounds off the main set.

First up is Wish, a driving, pulsating new number that’s transformed into a near 10-minute epic; an instrumental masterclass whose hypnotic thrills skilfully negotiate the pitfalls of meandering or self-indulgence.

Desire, the breakout single from 2011’s self-titled debut, meanwhile is delivered straight-up, and it’s nothing short of magical; a soaring, superlative crescendo and the night’s starkest showcase of a truly remarkable voice.

It’s a magnificent performance – one which trumps all expectations and makes a mockery of those initial reservations.

Indeed, as she rounds the evening off with a pair of encores (old favourite Suzanne And I and a furious rendition of Suicide’s Ghost Rider), the only lingering pity is that more aren’t present to bear witness.

ALISTAIR WELFORD