6th October | SWX

You’ve got your doe-eyed singer-songwriters who mumble carefully-woven words to their feet. You’ve got the awkward indie rockers who sing through long locks of straightened hair. And then, you get performers who do everything in their power to claim, contain and conquer your attention by force. Anna Calvi took that last category to the extreme on Saturday night, bringing a runway with her to SWX that cleaved the crowd in two and placed her physically and focally in the centre of the room. It’s easy to guess where Calvi got the idea, given her past dealings with heavyweights from the fashion world, but here she is more lioness than catwalk.

Calvi immediately holds herself with ferocious authority, opening with her debut album’s first track, the solo guitar instrumental, ‘Rider To The Sea’. It is a powerful, cinematic opener, and Calvi walks straight up to the tip of the runway as she performs it. She plays the guitar with awe-inspiring dexterity, and for much of her show it seems an extension of her body, not an external instrument. Heavy on the dry ice and dramatic lighting, the show has the feel of the kind of bands Spinal Tap parodied, but Calvi is the master of her melodrama, belting like Edith Piaf one moment and offering a Nick Drake whisper the next.

Her voice is versatile and formidable; her guitar solos bold, daring, and alarmingly good. But Calvi puts the spotlight on her body, imbuing it with a primal, dominant language that sharply divides the room. During one particularly Hendrix-like guitar solo she crouches down at the edge of the runway and leans into the crowd. One-by-one, she dares audience members to hold her gaze. One-by-one they look away. A man beside me says, “She’s scary.” And she is.

Finally, she finds a short woman who matches her gaze, and they stare with primitive intensity, while Calvi’s hands shred. She leans in. Her adversary leans in. It’s so tense and feral that I half expect one of them to screech and start throwing faeces at the other. This is her powerful approach to femininity, and it becomes clear why she has named this latest album Hunter. It’s easier to imagine Calvi ripping the throat from a gazelle than making a cup of tea.

At times, it becomes almost unbearable, as she wails Aretha notes into the mic she holds in one hand while accompanying herself one-handed on the guitar. Equally curious is how quickly she can pivot from powerful to vulnerable, vocally echoing (and challenging) the words “girl” and “boy” in Hunter’s lead single, ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’.  Between songs, individual members of the crowd call out, “go on, Anna,” like she’s a kickboxer resting between bouts.

But I can’t help but wonder, as she staggers up from all fours like she’s punch-drunk, how much of it is scripted. Classically trained and soaking up the melodrama, Calvi has all the hallmarks of a tightly-wound perfectionist, and when she throws herself face first onto the floor at the end of her set, high heels flailing, I wonder if she does this every time. But the moment passes, and the crowd clamour for their encore. Spontaneous or not, it is gripping and powerful, and disarmingly entertaining.