With Kate Tempest, This Is The Kit, Villagers and Sharon Van Etten among others on its roster this year, Edinburgh International Festival‘s already-varied programme of music, theatre and dance is being augmented to great effect by a swathe of UK, Irish and American non-classical artists, based at Leith Theatre, to the north side of the city.
Despite a drenching evening, the Theatre is near-full as Anna Calvi strides on stage – promptly, there having been no support act – in her black high-waisted flamenco-look suit, and white heeled boots, with a gunslinging catwalk swagger. The lighting is mainly red and white, following the signature aesthetic of her latest album, 2018’s Hunter, and as she eyes the audience, her Telecaster guitar ever-present, all the trademarks are thus in place, as she unleashes her rich, near-operatic voice. It’s a carefully-considered branding, but she inhabits it naturally and intuitively, her powerful vocals appearing to own the songs from the outset as much as articulate them, and though their lyrical matter is often complex, personal and conflicted, they are purposeful and measured, often building to a thunderous pay-off – a sound mightier than you might expect from just her and her accompanying drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood and keyboardist/percussionist Mally Harpaz, who augment her capably, maintaining the show’s determined ebb-and-flow pace, with Harpaz providing a bass presence where required, in addition to her keyboards’ colour and punctuation.
Calvi’s story is an interesting one: Twickenham-born in 1980, she has played violin and guitar since childhood, but did not sing until well into her twenties. After gaining her music degree she taught guitar, but her career as a recording artist took flight in 2010-11, when having supported indie-favourites Interpol and Arctic Monkeys on stage, her powerful debut album garnered critical praise, and prompted Brian Eno, no less, to foster her burgeoning career. BBC radio station 6Music played her singles extensively and she developed a strong, empowered style recalling fellow English artist PJ Harvey and American post-punk pioneer Patti Smith, that varies from a personal fragile vulnerability to strident memorable choruses, via a feminine sensuousness.
Playing a wide range of songs from the early Jezebel, through Desire and Eliza to a good many cuts from the Hunter album, those already following Calvi have their expectations duly and fully met, while there will have been many in the audience curious to see her for the first time, interest piqued maybe by her recent Mercury Award nomination. It’s purposeful, not exactly welcoming music – at times severe and taut, which for many is part of the appeal: with little said to illuminate them, it’s her songs, and that strident voice, that communicate most, both exhibiting something of the impermeable property they seem to have on record. This is compounded by the shimmering quality of her guitar-playing, its artful and passionately-described shapes augmenting that formidable voice to dramatic effect, occasionally recalling Flamenco finger-styles and culminating finally in a howling Hendrix-style leave-the-thing-to-feedback exit.
An abiding impression is that, with Edinburgh short of medium-sized venues for indie-sized acts (who often beat a path to Glasgow instead, taking their fanbase with them for the evening), if the ongoing renovation of Leith Theatre were to accelerate, what a fantastic venue it makes for this, and what a far-sighted thing Edinburgh International Festival is doing by making it one of their contemporary music stages.