Anna Calvi

“Other than Jack White, there aren’t really any guitar heroes anymore.”Anna Calvi

The idea of a guitar hero is, by most accounts, an outdated one; something reserved for the pages of Mojo or plastic Xbox peripherals. But reading Anna Calvi’s words and listening to her album, an interesting question is raised – why has today’s popularised indie scene (nebulous I know) left guitar heroics by the wayside?

Of course there’s the old punk argument that it all amounts to onanism, and you won’t see a much better endorsement than StSanders’ wonderfully manipulated concert footage, making every straining posture and self-satisfied gurn look as ridiculous as it truly is. But listen to Calvi’s self-titled debut and that loses some force. Her technical, almost classical, guitar playing weaves in and out, becoming a breathtaking facet of many of her songs, something that will appear, stun you and fade just as quickly. So why are people with skills beyond chugging chords and slow-paced picking moving into genres like metal (and its many component parts) or sticking to a classical background?

Of course, there’s the pressing concern of “cool” – the current indie media favours the lo-fi, the no-fi, the glo-fi which all stick to one central tenet: less is more. Less production, less focus, less (discernible) technical skill. If you’re a green indie band, you want to get noticed and, let’s face it, there aren’t many people who actually want to fly in the face of what’s perceived as the cool thing to do, it’s just peer pressure at its most basic level. There’s also quite probably a question of perceived benefit – someone who has practiced for their entire life to become a technically proficient player is likely to have listened to the kind of music that encourages that (all of my most incredible guitar playing friends are metal fans) and is most likely to want to play in an area that rewards them for their skill, not shuns them.

My question then is this, why has that pattern not been broken yet? In a postmodern world, the contrarian is often the most lauded, and it seems high time that a set of contrarians with above average guitar skills step up to the plate. If indie is most concerned with innovation, breaking the mould and in a lot of a cases, subverting the popularity of the mainstream, surely in a musical era dominated by heartless, singer-fronted dance music on one side and impenetrable, directionless noise on the other there’s a place for an indie guitar hero? I for one would love to see it, and I see Anna Calvi as the prototype for that, a guitar player who knows how to make their skill a part of a whole, rather than the sum of a song’s parts.

But now it’s over to you. This is, obviously, a simplistic piece. It’s not long, I’ve not researched it and it could probably do with having its argument narrowed a little. So tell me what you think – would you welcome a more obviously technical alternative music scene, is this a terrible idea, or have I missed a whole sub-genre of wildly innovative guitar maestros playing witches’-cave or whatever the fuck Pitchfork loves at the moment? Let me know!

The White Stripes – Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine (YSI)

What with all the bitching and moaning about the digital age, it’s easy to forget why people use iTunes – it opens a whole new realm of easy to find musical connections and combinations that you would never have considered in the past. For instance, by sheer coincedence of their alphabetical similarities, I discovered that The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and Anna Calvi’s ‘First We Kiss’ sound amazing back-to-back. See, the death of recorded music isn’t so bad now, is it?

The Animals – House of the Rising Sun (YSI)
Anna Calvi – First We Kiss (YSI)

I’ve been to Newcastle’s fantastic bar/restaurant/venue The Cluny a fair few times now, but I’d never yet ventured to the far end to have a look at Cluny 2, the newly added extra bar and venue space. Well, not only did I get to have a good look round on Saturday, I also got to see the magnificent Johnny Flynn as part of the bargain. And not only that, this was the first gig I’ve been to for a long time where the support bands have been any good at all – and these two were both pretty wonderful.

Cluny 2 used to be (and I think, still is) a theatre space, meaning the stage is placed amidst seating, and there are balconies overlooking it all, meaning it’s pretty intimate to begin with. As we walked in, we realised that the audience didn’t believe in personal space and had stood right next to the already enclosed stage anyway, so taking our position we watched the first act, James Mathé. A permanent part of The Sussex Wit himself, Mathé played rickety old keyboards and sang whilst Mr. Flynn himself took turns providing backing vocals and violin accompaniments. What we heard was a beautifully stripped down set of folktronica at its purest – folk melodies and styles set (mostly) to electronic instrumentation. Mathé’s voice is usually restrained and slightly affected (think a more downbeat Alexis Taylor), but at its wildest grew into a heartrending keen as he put his whole body into singing out what he had to say. It was a lovely start to the gig – as Mathé himself put it, ‘it isn’t music to dance to’, but it’s music to relax to. His Myspace offers a few tracks that seem further fleshed out and more obviously indebted to electronic and pop music, but it’s still lovely – ‘Bloodline’ in particular is a masterpiece of laid back heartache pop. I can’t offer any tracks as yet, but hopefully some will be forthcoming.

Next up was Anna Calvi who I understand has garnered the affections of Xfm legend John Kennedy and a certain Devonté Hynes (aka Lightspeed Champion), and based on this performance it’s perfectly understandable why. She opened with a virtuoso solo performance on her guitar, alternating between furious picking and harplike strums before segueing into the first track, fixing the audience with a steely glare and billowing her deep alto vocals as her bandmates both provided the percussion for her wild guitar work. The immediate impression was one of amazement – it’s unfortunately rare to be met with a new artist so accomplished at their chosen instrument. The set continued in a similar vein, full of tracks that oscillated between the ‘silence as instrument’ aesthetic championed by The xx and the pure overblown guitar theatrics of Showbiz-era Muse. Calvi seems completely unlike any artists in the current scene – completely comfortable in her own skin and with her own skill. But it’s her bandmates who make Anna Calvi as good as she is, providing the perfect, restrained accompaniment, keeping her in line and grounding her but letting her soar when she needs to. She truly is quite special, and the demos on her Myspace page help prove that with ‘Blackout’ a highlight of both that page and the set.

After two such good support artists, I’d almost forgotten that we’d come to see Johnny Flynn, but sure enough he appeared, bandmates arrayed around him to the screams of the strange group of folk groupies that seem to have sprung up from the depths of Newcastle. Before I go on, I’d like to mention these idiots. As talented and good-looking as Johnny undoubtedly is (my girlfriend didn’t stop telling me so for a fair while afterwards), when your inane screaming of his name is clearly making him nervous and uncomfortable onstage, and therefore disrupting the gig, maybe that’s a signal that it’s time for you to grow up and stop acting like a tween at a Jonas Brothers concert. Just a thought. Anyway, aside from half the crowd acting like braying twats, Johnny and his Sussex Wit played a fucking blinder of a set all in all. Opening with ‘The Box’, he was immediately met with singalongs and a full-on hoedown which more-or-less continued throughout.

Brilliantly, the band opted to alternate between songs from the first album and new tracks from the forthcoming sophomore effort, meaning the crowd’s interest neevr waned, but we were all treated to tasters of what’s to come. And if the gig was anything to go by, the second album will be just as good as the first. Sounding, literally, a lot more rhythm and blues than A Larum, the new songs see Johnny playing his usual dobro alongside banjo, trumpet, violin and god knows what else whilst his band sound far more amped-up and foregrounded than before. The older tracks sounded better with live experience too with ‘Brown Trout Blues’, ‘Cold Bread’ and my personal favourites ‘The Wrote and the Writ’ (which I have written about elsewhere as being pure poetry set to music) and ‘Tickle Me Pink’ (the first Flynn song I heard) receiving a hugely warm reception. It was a stunning set and performance, and judging by the extended cheers and applause of the crowd afterward, one I wasn’t alone in wishing it hadn’t ended when it had. Oh, and new-folk fans, there’s a confirmed Laura Marling appearance on the new album. Be excited.

Anna Calvi – First We Kiss (Demo) (YSI)
Johnny Flynn – Brown Trout Blues (YSI)