Anna Calvi and Heritage Orchestra, Edinburgh International Festival review: A performer utterly in control of the visual aesthetic and the sonic

It’s like watching Nick Cave perform, except where Calvi can match that sense of rawness and passion

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The Independent Culture

“You’re amazing, Anna!” yells a woman in the crowd midway through the show, a departure from the air of respect bordering on reverence permeating this late night Hub Session at the Edinburgh International Festival. “I didn’t hear that, but I assume it was good,” bats back Anna Calvi, a significant proportion of the words she spoke during this show.

She surely knows it was good. Stripped of the polished delicacy of much of her recorded work but augmented to an almost supernatural degree by the presence of the attendant Heritage Orchestra and choir, there’s a sense here that the singer has struck upon the perfect forum for her talents. The audience take every opportunity to show their appreciation in vociferous fashion, and Calvi appears quietly satisfied with this first of a three-night run in Edinburgh.

She enters silently, last onstage after a rather prolonged introduction where first the thirteen-strong orchestra and their conductor, then the six-strong group of choral singers, then finally her three-piece band shuffle on amidst the dark and silence. There is no ceremony, but also a strangely ethereal sense of detachment. ‘The Bridge’ commences the show, Calvi’s raw but perfectly-tuned vocal soaring alongside those singers.

Photo credit (Benjamin McMahon)

This space used to be a church, and the sound carries upwards and reverberates in a fashion which is just sublime for hearing choral harmonies in their finest context. The vocal arrangements and variety of sounds are striking; ‘Sing to Me’ is founded on a sparse guitar and drum patter, with Calvi’s voice and those of her singers surging with the strings as they kick in; the ghostly vocal coda of ‘Suzanne and I’ is simply transporting; the blue-lit ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ staggers and seduces, a sensuous flirtation made of only Calvi’s breathy voice at one point.

As a performer, she seems utterly in control of the visual aesthetic as well as the sonic. The darkness, the silence (and in some cases lack of space) between songs, the way her blonde curls fall down over her eyes and she seems disengaged from her audience, limiting eye contact and absorbed in the music she’s making. It’s like watching Nick Cave perform, except where Calvi can match that sense of rawness and passion, her tender moments are more distinctly feminine, due to the tone of her voice. It makes for a wonderful emotional range, and the pleasing sense that she’s absolutely not boxed in or labelled as a performer.

She plays Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Fire’ alone on her guitar, and follows it up with a solo version of ‘No More Words’ which is dazzlingly sexual. It’s just one of many striking moments here, with ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ reduced to just a tense, mournful shaker solo after she splits the air with the line “sometimes I feel so alone”, and the encores of ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Eliza’ a showcase for her serrated guitar playing and the power of her unleashed voice.