Women Who Rock en Seine: Anna Calvi
It’s been five years since Anna Calvi has released an album. Her first two garnered widespread accolades and Mercury Prize nominations. In the days leading up to the August 31st release of her third album, Hunter, Calvi gave the Cascade Stage audience at Rock en Seine a memorable performance that I felt was the strongest set I witnessed during the 3-day festival.
Anna Calvi opened the set with “Rider to the Sea”, the lead track from her 2011 debut. The instrumental features mesmerizing guitar work rippled with haunting arpeggios. Wearing a slide on her finger, she stroked and slapped the neck of her guitar, coaxing a variety of unusual utterances from her instrument. In this song and throughout the set, she would be accompanied by two musicians playing drums and multi-tasking on keyboards/percussion/guitar.
An unreleased song, “Indies Or Paradise,” from the upcoming Hunters was the second song in. It fooled us with a gentle intro before punching everyone in the gut with a blast of the guitar. “I want us in the air in paradise/I get lost in the air in paradise…” commanded and affirmed her vocals as they soared across the chorus. A wild guitar solo entangled our minds somewhere midsong and then led us to a gentle place where voice and guitar fluttered and flirted with one another “Your beauty will come save me,” sang Calvi. It was merely a trick. The artist-enchantress immediately sucker punched us again, harder still than in the song intro, with a dark power chord. “Indies or Paradise” ends abruptly and unusually with an emphatic “I want!” If this new song is any indication of what to expect on Calvi’s third album then indeed, “I want!”
The new song was followed by the more familiar “I’ll Be Your Man” before the sound of heavy breathing introduced “Hunter”, the title track of the new album. “I dressed myself in leather” began the song. It just so happens that Calvi was wearing a black pantsuit, quite classic in cut, paired with a leather top of criss-crossing straps, transparent cut-outs, heavy brass zippers, and a pointy bustier. Classic meets daring. White leather low boots and bright red lipstick provided contrast in colour to basic black. The vocals on “Hunter” are astonishing and broad in range, from a deeply pitched slow vibrato to high-pitched and childlike in timbre. Again, contrast. Looking deeper into the meaning of Hunter, Calvi states, “The intent of this record is to be primal and beautiful, vulnerable and strong, to be the hunter and the hunted.” Anna Calvi outlines this quest for deeper understanding via voluntary contradiction in a Manifesto published on her website.
The next song, also from the unreleased Hunter, begins with a catchy “doot-doot-doot-doot-doo-doo” refrain but upon hearing the line “Don’t beat the girl out of my boy” that articulates the song title, we sense that things are about to become more complex in meaning. Referring back to Calvi’s aforementioned Manifesto, we read, “I believe that gender is a spectrum. I believe that if we were allowed to be somewhere in the middle, not pushed to the extremes of performed masculinity and femininity, we would all be more free.”
The entire set was exhilarating. In addition to “Paradise”, “Hunter”, and “Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy” the audience would be treated to “As a Man” and “Wish” from Calvi’s upcoming record. The already outstanding set would ultimately amp up into a dramatic dénouement with a cover of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” ending with Calvi wrestling with her guitar (she won) and shoving it away before exiting the stage to ample and merited applause.
Festival bookers worldwide take note. Anna Calvi is worthy of your Main Stage.
Rock en Seine Flashback: Oasis RIP, Vive Liam!
An important page in British music history was brutally turned at Rock en Seine nine years ago. In 2009, as tens of thousands of fans flocked to the Main Stage for headliner Oasis, a fight broke out backstage between the Gallagher brothers that led to Noel leaving the festival grounds and definitively quitting the band. Witnesses and interviews would later detail that the fight occurred over a combination of Noel’s distaste for Liam’s foray the clothing business and Liam’s behavior with the press. Things were thrown and smashed—a plum against a wall and a guitar on the floor—and festival fans were sorely disappointed. The appropriately named band Madness stepped in to fill the sudden void in programming after having performed a well-appreciated set earlier that day.
In the pre-concert chatter that surrounded me, I heard conversations occurring in both French and English about that very day in August 2009. It seemed that the audience contained a smattering of individuals who were there on the evening when the Rock en Seine organizers came out on stage with the unenviable task of announcing that “Noel has left the building”.
Liam himself cheekily “commemorated” the incident during his Main Stage solo return to Rock en Seine. About halfway through the set after performing “Some Might Say”, he quipped, “A little birdie told me that this is where Oasis kind of….uh…ballsed it all up. Is this the festival, yeah?” he wondered out loud. “I thought the backstage looks a little bit familiar,” he nodded. “I nearly tripped over a plum and stuff.”
A concertgoer behind me exclaimed in French, “The fucker! We remember!”
Then Liam would perform a sparse, piano-accompanied version “Champagne Supernova”, prefacing the song with, “I dedicate this song to the geezer who wrote it, Mr. Noel Gallagher.” Oddly enough, Liam Gallagher’s current guitarist bears a resemblance to Noel. It is fitting too that Champagne Supernova was the last Oasis song the brothers would ever perform together before heading to the fated Paris gig. Coincidentally, Paris is also mentioned in the last song Oasis ever performed on stage, a cover of “I Am The Walrus”. Voilà! The French connection!
Putting the ghost of festivals past aside, the former Oasis frontman’s set got the job of giving the people what they want done. Gallagher the younger performed Oasis hits joined collectively in song by a delightfully French-accented audience, along with tunes from Liam’s solo debut As You Were. Further tailoring the set to the Parisian audience, Liam made a slight change to the lyrics of Wonderwall, adapting a line to explain, “There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t speak FRENCH!” From there he let the crowd take over the chorus as he flattered, “You people are beautiful! Gorgeous!” Paris loved Our Kid right back and all was forgiven. Well, maaayyybeeeeee.
Here’s an idea put forward by a concert neighbour. The next edition of Rock en Seine will mark the 10th anniversary of the Oasis breakup and the Paris gig that never happened. What if…
More Highlights and Discoveries
Just as Liam Gallagher exited the Main Stage, Charlotte Gainsbourg, the talented progeny of France’s beloved iconic “it” couple Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, played to an overflowing crowd on the neighbouring Cascade Stage. It’s not common to hear an electro-pop number that pays homage to dark poetess Sylvia Plath (“Sylvia Says”). Nor does one expect to hear beats layered to marital vows as in “Deadly Valentine.”
In other words, Charlotte shares her parents’ taste for remixing genres and meanings in unexpected ways but follows her own electronica musical path in doing so. Charlotte’s illustrious parents still remain present in her set. Shades of Jane Birkin can be heard in her timbre and diction. And her departed father was remembered via a performance of “Lemon Incest”, a duo she originally recorded with Serge Gainsbourg when she was 13. At the time, in typical Gainsbourgian fashion, the provocative track and music video offended many but surprised no one. Charlotte, forever.
Earlier in the afternoon, Welshly Arms took to the Firestone Stage, a smaller, open area stage devoted to emerging talent. Initially the modest-sized audience matched the modest stage size, but the spectator count seemed to grow as the set progressed and passersby liked what they heard and decided to stick around. Frontman Sam Getz kicked off the set by announcing they were from Cleveland, Ohio and had come a long way to play but were very happy to be there.
There is nothing “revolutionary”, “cutting-edge”, “border-breaking”, or “genre-defying” about Welshly Arms and that’s pretty damn refreshing. The six-piece delivers solid, bluesy rock played with heart, excellent musicianship, and backed by soulful vocalists who have worked out fun-to-watch choreography that seems spontaneous yet always synchronized. From start to finish, the performance is artless and unaffected, genuine and gratifying. I have no doubt that getting to that level of effortless flow has required rehearsals galore, paying dues aplenty, tallying miles on tour, and more personal sacrifices than most humans are willing to make.
Throughout the set, band members have a glow about them and in between songs, gratitude is expressed a number of times. The good spirits are contagious and spectators mirror back the happiness. When I peered behind me at the end of the set the audience size exceeded that of many of the larger stages and the crowd energy and engagement was off the charts. “Thanks for making our day so damn special!” gushed the lead vocalist to conclude the show.
Welshly Arms has had some successful music licensing opportunities in film, television, video games and advertising, most notably with their track Legendary. “We’re gonna be legends!” proclaims the chorus. They may very well be right about that.