Anna Calvi often elicits hyperbolic pronouncements. Brian Eno referred to her as the “biggest thing since Patti Smith”, and certainly her self-titled Mercury Prize-nominated debut had journalists scrambling for musical references. But it is always something of a disservice to focus too much on the comparison game, and Calvi’s second release, One Breath, confirms that her musical identity is much more than an aggregate of classical rock and post-punk tropes.
No opener is more likely to contrast with the headline act than Alice Boman, the Swedish singer-songwriter who has been making a name for herself in Copenhagen opening shows for the likes of Matthew E. White. Everything is low-key, from the keyboards to the shy little vocals. The most intense part of her set was when someone carrying her kick-drum bashed me in the knee.
Amager Bio fills up to a comfortable level, and it is gratifying to be surrounded by people who are genuine fans of the act, as opposed to those who go to gigs out of some sense of cultural duty. The stage background is a huge blow-up of a desert vista, which in the case of Anna Calvi could as easily refer to Spain as to the American West. Accompanying Calvi tonight are a drummer, a keyboardist, and a woman who the singer describes as playing “all those instruments”, including a harmonium, bass, and assorted percussions.
The presence of the percussionist should be revealing in itself. Anna Calvi has cultivated a meticulous and mesmerising live sound, with a guitar tone that her records simply cannot do justice to.
Opening with “Suzanne and I”, it takes a minute or so for her voice to warm up, but when the song really requires it, she slips into gear and belts out the chorus. From this point Calvi breezes through most of her two albums with a passion and control that are hard to reconcile with each other.
“Rider To the Sea” is vastly extended, and slowly abandons its cold façade as Calvi lets rip. I can honestly say I haven’t been this taken with a guitarist since I was a twelve year old pretending to be Jimmy Page. The flamenco flourishes and Hendrix flashes are genuinely exhilarating, and Calvi achieves this effect completely unaccompanied.
Though there are moments where Anna Calvi’s sense of the dramatic places her squarely as one of Roy Orbison’s few genuine descendents, there is nothing strictly “retro” about her. Songs like “Piece by Piece” showcase her canny sense of composition and use of incidental sounds over a sparse keyboard riff. The fast guitar riffs are so delicate that they end up melting with the keyboards, until they are displaced by overdriven guitar lines.
While it is true that for the most part the audience is in love with Calvi’s voice and guitar playing, rather than her song writing, the latter is a skill she is fast developing, and which will certainly come into its own on her next release. But it is no exaggeration to say the audience is in love. The enthusiasm in Amager Bio is undeniable, the applause heartfelt. Calvi, who says very little in between songs, seems truly affected by this, and finally exits the stage in a shy glow.