The Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

The Anchoress / Leoni Jane Kennedy

Acapela Studio, Pentyrch, Cardiff
Saturday, 30th September 2023

Some places are just special, and that magic often seeps through into the performances that take place in them.

One such place is Acapela Studio, a converted chapel in the village of Pentyrch, kind of in Cardiff but not, lying as it does in the countryside on the other side of the M4. I’ve been here many times and it’s a lovely space – that also serves delicious pizza to hungry audients, so what’s not to like? The table area downstairs is relaxed and open, the pews upstairs are much more comfortable than they used to be, the ale is delicious and there’s always a warm welcome.

There’s a definite air of expectation around tonight’s show, the first Welsh headline performance from The Anchoress (aka Catherine Anne Davies), but despite being sold out it’s an easy task to grab a pint and wander upstairs to take a seat in the balcony in front of the stage.

Leoni Jane Kennedy, photo by Jeff CooperAt 8 o’clock, the lights dim and the evening begins with Leoni Jane Kennedy. I didn’t know what to expect but as soon as she began it was entrancing, her rich and warm voice beautifully supported by some quite fabulous finger-picked acoustic guitar work. How people can do both at once never ceases to amaze me (or even one on its own, to be honest!) but what Leoni does is completely enthralling. Her original songs are interesting and engaging throughout and she delivers them with a haunting power and confidence. As a massive Rush fan (Leoni has released a quite lovely album of acoustic interpretations of songs from the Canadian legends), the inclusion of a cover in the set was almost inevitable, but I was surprised by the choice of Tears, a Geddy Lee song from the B-side of 2112. In all honesty, I’ve never been particularly enamoured by this song, it always seemed a bit cloying in the original version, but Leoni delivers it as it should be heard and it’s quite lovely. It’s always nice when somebody else’s take on a song reveals it to be so much more than you had thought previously. Her set is quite rightly received with huge enthusiasm and I genuinely can’t wait to catch Leoni solo again.

[Leoni Jane Kennedy playing Tears at RUSHfest Scotland, May 2022]

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I’m pretty new to The Anchoress but have been very taken with 2021’s The Art of Losing album and was looking forward to seeing how the songs worked in a live setting. I was pleasantly surprised to see Leoni Jane Kennedy return to the stage as part of The Anchoress band, on electric guitar this time, she and drummer Keir Adamson arriving first to set the ball rolling. With a recorded intro, Catherine Anne Davies and bassist Charlie Cawood join them to a fine reception and the set begins with the delicate opening of One for Sorrow, from 2016’s Confessions of a Romance Novelist, which soon opens out into pumping art pop. It’s a lovely song that sets the scene beautifully, Catherine front and centre in a natty red leopard-print suit, with a selection of keyboards close at hand. It’s nice to see Charlie Cawood at the front stage left (he generally seems to be tucked away at the back of large ensembles) with Leoni to Catherine’s right.

The Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

A trio from The Art of Losing underline the feelings of loss and grief that imbue so many of Catherine’s songs, but they still retain an uplifting sincerity that oozes from the quality of the writing. The well-judged use of backing tracks for vocals, additional keyboard parts or orchestrations, seemingly triggered by Adamson, expands the sound, allowing for different parts that would otherwise have been lost. Show Your Face and the album’s title track are big hits that should have been, Catherine’s theatrically edged performance delivering them to perfection. She is in fine voice and the band are well drilled, a confident unit who work together well as they move into the darker Unravel, its strings giving a distinct ’80s vibe that works very well.

Once Upon a Lie is a nice addition, a B-side that Catherine explains was put aside for now unknown reasons but has since revealed itself to be more than worthy. And so it is, a lovely song with hints of Kate Bush, Cawood nailing the thumping bass line as he does all night. Damsels is the first of two new songs, the other being All Fall Down, that bode well for the next album of Anchoress originals, which will be put together over the next year or so.

The Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

Catherine switches between keyboards, subtly adding rather than intensely playing as she performs the vocals as the key element, but she moves to seat herself at the piano for a moving Let it Hurt. 5AM is equally affecting, the delicacy of the music shrouding the deep pain in the words. These deeply personal songs are a cathartic release for the pent up emotion and distress that Catherine has had to deal with in recent years. As she tells us, the best way to deal with the memories whilst performing these songs is to get angry with someone who has really pissed you off, and she certainly rides that anger to deliver these songs with supreme passion.

The new Anchoress album, Versions, is due for release this week. A collection of reinterpretations of songs by others, from it we get a beautiful version of the Manic Street Preachers’ This is Yesterday and New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. They are fine recreations, adding new detail to the familiar and uncovering hidden depths, Cawood switching to guitar to support the stripped down version of the Manics’ song. Bizarre Love Triangle retains that intrinsic New Order-ness in the bassline to be new whilst still instantly recognisable.

The Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

The Heart is a Lonesome Hunter sees Catherine strap on a guitar too for a three-axe frontline, the vibrant notes reverberating around the hall. Likewise, My Confessor creates a haunting aura before exploding into the choruses for some very satisfying crescendos. These two are separated by a second song from Confessions of a Romance Novelist in Long Year, its loping rhythm a perfect fit at the heart of the trio, taking on a Tori Amos hue.

Probably the most unusual song in the set is Human Reciprocator, a piece that Catherine recorded with Robert Manning’s Band Spectra last year. There’s a distinct electro-punk edge, with Catherine’s strident voice front and centre. It’s a good move to include it as it gives a wider overview of The Anchoress’ work, and that extra dimension benefits the set immeasurably, the band handling it with the same finesse as the rest of the songs.

The Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

The show ends with the evocative The Exchange, again from The Art of Losing. It’s a perfect way to finish, intimate and expansive all at the same time. And with the audience whooping their appreciation, Catherine leads the band from the hall, job very well done.

It has been a fantastic set, fascinating to experience as it evolves in stages, shaping itself in different ways with each new batch of songs. All of the material has a job to do and each song fills the space it is afforded admirably. Catherine really does have a fine catalogue of work to draw from, and the band to deliver it to its full potential.

The Anchoress - photo by Jeff CooperThe Anchoress - photo by Jeff Cooper

[All photos by Jeff Cooper, used with great appreciation.]

One for Sorrow
Show Your Face
The Art of Losing
Once Upon a Lie
Let it Hurt
This is Yesterday (Manic Street Preachers cover)
The Heart is a Lonesome Hunter
Long Year
My Confessor
Human Reciprocator
Bizarre Love Triangle (New Order cover)
All Fall Down
The Exchange

Catherine Anne Davies – Vocals, Keyboards, Electric Guitar
Charlie Cawood – Bass, Electric Guitar
Leoni Jane Kennedy – Electric Guitar, Vocals
Keir Adamson – Drums

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