Anna Calvi + Halloween Alaska @ HMV Institute, 4th November 2011


It’s a fine line between being pretentiously glib or unavoidably ambivalent when attempting to define the likes of Halloween Alaska in their pursuit of ‘evocative moods and themes.’

In subverting established rock/pop’s conventions, inevitably both embracing and potentially alienating new audiences, HA have made a fruitful Faustian pact with the Devil’s own music. And he’s not too pleased about that!

If you’re inclined towards The Blue Nile’s once in a decade albums of existential introspections, the isolationist glacial grander of Sigour Ros and frissons of confessional Coldplay then you’ll be a happy bunny blinded in NA’s northern lights.


Setlist: (thanks to Matt, the sonic caretaker) You Are Not Well, Hot Pink, Knights of Columbus, Des Moines, All the Arms, Around You, 3:1, Empire Waist, You & Me Both.

In terms of contemporary, and not quite so contemporary music, the world is now binary. Those who have seen an Anna Calvi live performance are at one with all that’s magnificent, whilst those who haven’t lead lives in shadow-haunted zeros.


Remember that first time you heard the psychedelic, Led Zep guitar rush in the seismic opening chords of ‘Mojo Pin’ on Jeff Buckley’s debut album ‘Grace’? Keep it in mind. Ms. Calvi’s mojo had, so far, been unfortunately compromised in Brum. A hand injury meant cancelled gigs and much consternation. Tonight, she’s very hands on and about to demonstrate why her recent gig in Rome (a paternal homecoming, of sorts) blew the sell-out venue away.

There was a reverential hush so marked that the humming air-con was chastised by Security. And what a sight to behold she is in high black slacks and waist-trim red jacket complimenting her vampire-snogged Snow Queen crimson lipstick. (With matching accessory leatherette red combo-amp behind her, naturally.) Whilst enigmatically beguiling, coupled with an aura of vulnerable distance, it is her near operatic vocal range and tonal registers that have to be seen and heard to believe, coming as they do from one of so demure and petite physique. A recurrent, distiquishing hand gesture of hers seems to both suggest a desire to distancing herself from the audience but also perhaps a momentary pause to chastise her truculent daemons.


Her songs are laced with flavours of Tex-Mex tangos and samba shuffles all broodingly brewed in a cauldron of Telecaster drenching reverb and tremolo shivers of bottle-neck slide. Elements of near pycho-billy Surf rock meander with subtle menace. She lets there be light but compels us to embrace her darkness. Torch-song ballads drip with tears of napalm and, in the climaxing ‘Suzanne and I’, the thunder drums and guitar apocalypse sees Calvi bathed with intense white, splintered spotlight as though the Mother-ship had returned to reclaim an errant prodigal daughter.

Her Elvis cover ‘Surrender’ saw Mally Harpaz use her squeeze-box harmonium to celestial effect. Indeed, throughout the set, Harpaz played both the latter and her floor-pedal Moog bass gizmo with moody panache ever in conspiratorial tandem with drummer, Daniel Maiden-Wood. The haunting, hymnal opening to ‘Morning Light’ could easily have been a threesome with Jeff Buckley and Leonard Cohen. Penultimate closing number ‘Desire’ bristled with Arabian spiced harmonium and Biblical proportioned Keith Moon hangover percussion whilst closer, the solitary cri de coeur ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ was a pyrotechnic journey into the hearts of Hendrix/Cream with nuanced refrains referencing The Doors’ ‘Soft Parade’.


Only one encore, the seemingly apposite, Edith Piaf’s ‘Jezabel’. And a mad bad stampede Tex-Mex Tango it was.

Setlist: (‘subject to mid-gig change’) Rider To The Sea, No More Words, Blackout, I’ll Be Your Man, First We Kiss, Surrender, Moulinette, Suzanne And I, Wolf Like Me, Morning Light, Desire, Love Won’t Be Leaving, Jezebel.

Review – John Kennedy
Photos – Ian Dunn

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