Anna Calvi has a flair for the dramatic. After all, not just anyone can cover Edith Piaf and use it as their sole encore number. Musical drama would be in full effect on this chilly December evening in Toronto. Calvi can cast a spell over an audience with her ability to channel Jimi Hendrix through her Fender Telecaster, and Jeff Buckley through her microphone. I’m pretty sure I heard PJ Harvey in there somewhere, too. Only problem was, on this night at least, the audience wasn’t paying attention. It seems that these concert goers couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk through, what should have been, the calm before the musical storm.

2011 has been a wonderful year for Anna Calvi; she released her debut album to critical acclaim, was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize (losing out to PJ Harvey) and opened shows for heavyweights Grinderman and Interpol. This counts as her second show here this year (she played the El Mocambo earlier). I consider myself fortunate to be able catch her in this rather intimate room, in the early days of her career. Bigger and less personal stages are surely in this woman’s future. 

The set got off to an instrumental start with Calvi and her band, consisting of only a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, playing "Rider to the Sea", a beautiful, Flamenco- sounding guitar piece. It was an inspiring way to open, since the song allows her to show just what a guitar virtuoso she really is. I was half-expecting to see her dance with a bull across the stage. Like any good Matador, she does have a fondness for wearing bright red shirts, slicked back hair and buttoned-up trousers. She seems to wield some kind of power though, because at one point during the concert Calvi dropped her pick, at which point the drummer hopped around his drum kit, gave it back to her and resumed his duties without missing a beat. Ole!

After "Rider to the Sea" it was one treat after another; "No More Words", "Desire" and "Blackout" being personal highlights. At the midway point of the show, they played two covers, the first being Elvis Presley’s "Surrender". Speaking in all honesty, I don’t know the first thing about the Presley back catalogue, other than the obvious ones, but as far as this song goes, Calvi seemed to take hold of it and make it her own. Two songs later, I was delighted to hear a favourite of mine, a TV On The Radio favourite, that is. Calvi and Co. took a crack at "Wolf Like Me", the Brooklyn band’s 2006 indie charts hit. They didn’t just take a crack at it…they hit it out of the ballpark. Where the original was a hard charging up-tempo rocker, Calvi slowed it down to a soulful blues dirge, complete with anguished guitar distortion. 

The show ended with another rousing cover version; Edith Piaf’s "Jezebel". If you were two close your eyes, you would feel like you had been standing in some ancient Parisian theatre with Calvi assuming the role of the French songbird… with Marshall amplifiers, of course.

We saw interpretations of Buckley, Harvey, Piaf and Presley, but in the end all we were left with were the haunting sounds of Anna Calvi.

- Johnny Hooper