An undersized venue, a sell out crowd and a fantastic pair of support acts set the perfect scene for Anna Calvi to unleash her spell on an anticipating Sheffield crowd. Booked to play at The Harley in the wake of possibly her biggest break yet – the cover story in The Guardian’s ‘Guide’ magazine – this, for many, was the first chance to see how much substance was behind the Anna Calvi phenomenon. The brilliant Low Duo and eccentric Robert George Saull were also among the line-up.
Robert George Saull, was the first act of the night. I heard no mention of him on any posters and I’m not sure many people knew he was on the bill, yet this helped his style and energy catch everyone off guard. Projecting an image somewhere on the way to insanity, his style was not dissimilar to a more emotionally loose Nick Cave, with folk style stories explaining the heritage of ideas that inspired his songs – one in particular was dedicated to the children of Palestine. Usually with his band, The Purgatory Players, he explained to the audience that his solo work gave him a freedom and that his latest project was very much “a concept album”, this was clearly evident throughout the set.
The singer-songwriter endeavoured to create an unconventional experience for all onlookers to witness. Singing the lyrics to one song in French, he apologised beforehand saying; “If there’s any fluent French speakers in the crowd, I’m sorry, but I’ll try and get the words right.” On another occasion he thrashed his guitar, in a head swaying fit of emotion that caused a wall of noise to envelope the crowd, it was very much a public display of terror and anger.
The stand out track in Saull’s set was a delicate number with a perfect guitar riff and aching vocals singing the words; “I am torrential rain and I reach for your hand in vain”. I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to watch this man play again, yet the unique excitement an artist like this can create is a brilliant reminder of how diverse the Sheffield music scene really is.
Next up were relative Sheffield newcomers, Low Duo, made up of brothers Leigh and Adam Greenwood. An acoustic double-act with the most stripped down and minimalist make up possible, a style which allows the vocal emotion to pierce through at every possible moment and means the intricate and percussive acoustic guitar fails to go unnoticed without making a point. The duo mixed songs from their début EP, ‘The EP of Hope and Despair’, with some work from their soon to be released second EP.
The brothers grabbed a mostly preoccupied audience’s attention quickly into their set, starting with the beautifully poignant ‘Fifteen Years’, and in doing so giving the audience a glimpse of what to expect from a Low Duo set; aching vocal renditions which at their climax have the ability to stop you breathing, if only for a brief moment.
The pair then shared a number of tracks from their forthcoming EP with the audience. These newer songs seemed to work with the same confounds of their début, delicate vocals throughout the verses before a major eruption of passion in the chorus.
Reverted back to the début EP for the climax of their set, the band played ‘Like a Fly’, which brought the crowd to hush, before ‘House on The Hill’, which saw lead singer Leigh wriggling around the microphone in a possessive passion as he recited the lyrics. The band then closed on ‘You and Me’ which saw the the front man’s voice gradually break up – partly down to exhaustion and partly down to alcohol consumption i assume – yet the imperfection accentuated the raw composition of their sound all the more.
Last was the act everyone had been waiting for, the reason this Thursday night had managed to produce a sell out crowd. Anna Calvi seems to have acquainted herself to her newly found fame, making the crowd restless and impatient in the 20 minute wait before her set, then strutting on in a low key manner before allowing her fingers to dance around the fret board in an extended intro of ‘Riders to the Sea’. The crowd went silent and hearts started pounding as she projected a fragile confidence in her ability to make the guitar play such beautiful sounds, the term “Female Jeff Buckley” springs to mind, however audacious a reference that may be.
She quickly introduced her backing band after only two songs into the set, which is just as well because they seem to have bought into the Anna Calvi way themselves, adding to the experience and creating a fantastic on stage rapport. The drums and bass in particular added to the vast amount of crescendos in Calvi’s repertoire, providing an organised yet spontaneous excitement to each song and allowing her to accentuate her song’s structures magnificently.
The main attraction to the London based singers work however, is always going to be her voice, slow and droning in parts, before climaxing into a scream or screech. Her influences include PJ Harvey, someone whose style and subtly gothic aura can be seen and compared to Anna Calvi, both in her onstage menace and in her musical style.
The highlight of the set was without a doubt the highly acclaimed ‘The Devil’, a song which created a high amount of tension and anticipation from the moment Anna announced it was her next song. The opening guitar part builds up the song as she allows her guitar time to breath and gasp, before the vocal melodies cry out in a way akin to choirs or angels. Ending on the line, “The devil, will come”, creating a memorable moment for all to take home with them.
Anna Calvi’s name and reputation has exploded into a wave of euphoria, with heart pounding performances like this she looks set to take over Britain and the world. 2011 should almost certainly be her year.