I had the pleasure of seeing the rather wonderful Anna Calvi at Birmingham’s HMV Institute on Friday night (4th November). During the gig, in a semi-mesmerised state brought on by her spell-binding presence, a thought entered my head that slowly grew into this very blog. The idea crossed my mind that the evening was one of those occasions when all the elements that make up live music had come together to form something rare, something special. The perfect gig.
As I walked away from the venue, I mentally listed all the things that have to be in place for a gig to be great in my eyes, and as I put this gig through the gauntlet of my own expectations, it came out the other end smiling.
So what are the elements that all play a part in making a gig special?
The first is obvious, the music. Seeing an artist or band you care about on top of their game is the foundation of a great gig, with the ability to play the songs as they sound on the recording or make them even better required to impress.
What songs they play and the order they play them is equally important as how well they play the songs too. A well-balanced set list, with a mixture of singles, album tracks, covers and rarities can make a gig great. Refusing to play your biggest song or ignoring one of your albums completely (unless it’s been advertised in advance) is a sure-fire way of ruining a gig for someone, there are bound to be people there who want to hear it even if you don’t want to play it, and you’re nothing without your audience.
It’s not only the music they play or don’t play that is important, the way they act is another stickler for me. Certain bands can pull off arrogance, some cannot. Arriving onstage late can build suspense or annoy. Humility is a particularly endearing quality for me. It’s great to see a humble artist, who thanks the audience at every possible occasion, and look as pleased to be playing in Birmingham on a wet Friday as they did on the Glastonbury TV highlights.
Between song banter is a tricky subject too. I don’t mind an artist who just sticks to the music, it’s what we came to see, but a few good one-liners or amusing anecdotes can definitely make an impression. However, if you come out of a gig and say the most memorable thing about it was the talking between the songs (i.e. Badly Drawn Boy at Moseley Folk), that speaks volumes about the music.
There is also the fact that the band you go to see won’t be the only band you do see, and while expectations should never be too high for support bands, a surprisingly good support band, that does more than just pass the time, can improve the atmosphere and take a gig up another notch.
Unfortunately, and sometimes unfairly, the people on stage aren’t the only people who can make or ruin a gig. An annoying audience is a particular pet peeve of mine, to the point where the people around me annoy me so much I can no longer focus on the music at all.
A great audience for me has to be the right size and volume, and be attentive. A gig that has sold a few too many tickets can feel like a cattle market, a gig that has sold too few can be an uncomfortable experience, especially if you make too much eye contact with the disappointed people on stage. The audience have to be quiet, silent even, during the right moments of the gig, and be loud with applause and cheering to keep the band encouraged and enthusiastic.
An audience who know and appreciate the songs are great, as long as they don’t sing over the band, try to start too many clap-a-long or sing guitar parts.
On to the surroundings, choice of venue is difficult again, sometimes bands are clearly in the wrong venue but can hardly be blamed if they’ve never played a gig there before. Sound quality and acoustics vary in importance depending on the band. A band with quiet, intricate sounds need a venue with good acoustics, whereas a loud, distorted band can make an atmosphere in even the shittiest hellhole.
The venues with the best sound quality in Birmingham are the Town Hall or The Alexandra, but unfortunately not many bands seem to realise this and play the Academy or Institute instead, both of which are adequate venues.
So back to where we started, Anna Calvi at the aforementioned Institute and why it was a perfect gig.
Firstly, when we arrived the audience was small, giving us a choice of standing place and allowing us to get not only a place on a balcony, already unheard of, but a couple of seats on the balcony, with great views of the stage and little chance of pushing and shoving.
The support band Halloween, Alaska were good, enough to get me to find out their name so I could check them out later. Their music was well suited to the gig and they got the audience, which was by then a decent size, warmed up nicely.
Anna and her band, an excellent drummer providing backing vocals and a perfectly eccentric percussionist playing all manner of instruments, took to the stage at the expected time. They played a set perfect in length, between too short and too long, with all the songs I wanted to hear and a few interesting covers (Elvis Presley, Edith Piaf), played in an order that balanced her quiet/loud moments, building an atmosphere from the first notes.
Every song was a highlight, from opener Rider To The Sea, where Anna warmed up her fingers with some virtuoso playing, to a prolonged version of album-closer Love Won't Be Leaving ending the set before the encore of Edith Piaf cover Jezebel with its pounding beat ensuring the gig maintained its intensity to the last second.
Anna is an arresting presence on stage, in her male flamenco dancer outfit of high-waisted trousers and a red silk shirt, her hair slicked back, dark eye makeup making her eyes bright and alarming, and her Telecaster worn high up her chest. And she has the talent to match the theatrics. She hit every note heard on her record, while simultaneously coaxing some beautiful notes from either of her two guitars.
The venue suited her intricate, quiet moments of delicate guitars and breathy vocals, as well as allowing her more boisterous strumming and booming vocals to soar. You could hear a pin drop during the quiet moments, but the applause was raucous and lengthy when the songs ended.
Anna said thank you after every song and seemed to genuinely enjoy the performance as much as the audience clearly did.
This gig ticked all the boxes. The only thing that wasn’t perfect about the evening was my lack of a camera to document it, but we can’t really blame Anna for that. So what makes your perfect gig?