Notes: Anna Calvi & Chelsea Wolfe @ UCLA Royce Hall, November 16, 2013

UCLA’s Royce Hall, legendary host to a wide range of performances across the performing arts spectrum, served as an apt venue for the pairing of Anna Calvi and Chelsea Wolfe, two lady songstresses with outsized stage presences, with songs that expand upon traditional structures and genres, taking pop well into avant-garde territory.

First up on the co-headline bill put on by the Center for the Arts of Performance at UCLA, Anna Calvi, in from England, touring her 2013 album, One Breath. She dons something of a uniform when performing–red or white silken blouse (red tonight), slim black trousers, heels, smoky eyes, hair back tight. It’s a smart look, conjuring secretary-gone-bad a bit, and gives off a bit of the effect of playing a character. Her’s is ostensibly guitar-based pop/rock, but that is probably an inadequate handle. The tunes are artful clockworks, with wide range of textures, sounds and volumes. There’s some polished production and intentional rough edges. She’s backed by a band of three on drums, keys, occasional electric bass, marimba and some crazy spiral-shaped cymbal. But the instruments that matter most here are her brilliant voice—tender and soaring, restrained and wild, as needed; she sustains and stretches notes up or down in range as a song climaxes or descends—and her Fender Telecasters—she carries the rhythm throughout, piercing select songs (and some ears) with quick bursts fiery solos, such as on “Cry” and a scorching set ending “Love Won’t Leaving”. After an enthralling dozen songs, she’s off into the night with a whispered “thank you” and no encore.

Following a welcome intermission, Chelsea Wolfe, the pride of Sacramento, closed the evening. Supporting her 2013 release, Pain Is Beauty, her set ratcheted up the theatricality with an ominous introductory instrumental overture and dramatic lighting. She slinks in after her all-black-clad band, flowing white robe over red dress. For me, this early theatrical peak was not matched. Backing herself ably on guitar (if not the virtuoso soloist that opened the evening) she performs a sort of modern Gothic rock, dense and ethereal and can overwhelm and oppress if not one is not particularly invested. There’s no denying her voice which is powerful within a narrow dark range. There are some nice desert blues and occasional metal elements that peak out of the miasma here and there.

Fairly or not, there’s a set lineage of solo female songwriter/performers to which newer solo females writing and performing under their own name inevitably will be compared. It’s a familiar short list– Patty Smith, Siouxsie, Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey. (Several of the most compelling younger female artists today are thriving fronting bands—Beach House, Savages, The xx, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Polica, etc; Eleanor Friedberger, being a notable recent act to venture out from her band under her own name.) For a while now, the spot after PJ has arguably has been unfilled. Anna Calvi may well be a contender for that.

Anna Calvi |
Chelsea Wolfe |
Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA |