The Anchoress – otherwise known as Catherine Anne Davies – celebrates a successful year tonight with a stripped-down, acoustic reworking of the songs that won her Prog’s Best Newcomer award. Her album Confessions Of A Romance Novelist was released in January 2016 and now, by December, she’s able to perform its highlights at a Steinway piano, with anecdotes about the coming to fruition of each one.
She’s still a nervous character onstage, though we only know this because she keeps telling us. With a three-piece string section providing light and shade, her voice, blending the honey of Karen Carpenter with the ice of PJ Harvey, flows freely: in this setting we can perfectly hear how strong and sure it is.
A fascinating voice precedes her. Dressed all in black, Martin Grech, solo at that Steinway, also complains of “nervous hands”, but overcomes this to deliver his trance-like songs in pure tones that almost redefine falsetto. While he’s tried on various styles for size during his career, it’s easy to understand the Jeff Buckley comparisons that have been made. The songs exude vulnerability and at times the aura of dark fairy tales. His uncompromising ambition intrigues.
The Anchoress may be sporting a sharp, silvery suit (“As seen on Strictly Come Dancing!” she tells us), but from the first number, Long Year, she gets into the serious business of growling and lamenting. Gillian Wood’s string arrangements dovetail perfectly and Waiting To Breathe surges while Popular bounces.
“Some of the songs may sound familiar, others less so,” suggests the Welshwoman, but these tunes stand up to having their tyres kicked, even without Paul Draper’s busy production. Davies describes Doesn’t Kill You, for example, as having grown into “a big ELO beast” on the record, but its chorus tugs just as fiercely unplugged.
“With every sip of wine,” she reveals, “the voice gets less shaky but the piano-playing gets sloppier. It’s a trade-off.”
Again, we wouldn’t have noticed: she sounds great. Even when essaying the duet You And Only You solo, no absence is felt, while the dedication of PS Fuck You to “this rubbish year” is obvious but apposite. The world may have caved in, but The Anchoress’ own musical progress has filigreed its crumbling walls.
Apologising for a run of “depressing” songs, she swoops into more upbeat numbers. What Goes Around whirls, and that title track relishes its line about losing the plot to Jeffrey Archer. If the album’s concept is too confused to convince, what’s proven in tonight’s exposed epiphanies is that its core holds.
Rivers Of Ice is the encore, with Davies telling us she’s played this in front of 25,000 people (with Simple Minds) but that “this is much more fucking terrifying”. Conversely, the audience find it warming and reassuring.