Live review: Martin Callingham

Martin Callingham live at the Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol
Martin Callingham live at the Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol

Martin Callingham joined by Anna Strudwick on cello, Tom Van Eker on guitar and Anna Kissell on violin

Ahead of the release of his debut solo record, Martin Callingham treats Bristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre to an intimate performance

ristol’s Alma Tavern Theatre is a cosy venue that gives you the feeling of watching a private audience in the performer’s own living room. It is the perfect setting for Martin Callingham to road test material from his upcoming album Tonight, We All Swim Free, the first solo record by the former Joyce The Librarian singer/songwriter.

Before his headline appearance, Martin finds time to accompany opening act Anna Kissell with his delicate guitar playing. Kissell performs a short set showcasing her contemporary folk songs and her beautifully ethereal, Moya Brennan-style vocals. Up next are the duelling guitars of Welshmen Richard James and Gareth Bonello and a set filled with songs sung in their native tongue as well as some exquisite guitar conjury.

Surprisingly for a show billed as a solo set, Callingham is joined by a large ensemble of musicians, including Anna Kissell who has returned as part of the backing band, this time with violin in hand. Also joining him onstage are Tom Van Eker on guitar, Anna Strudwick on cello and Helen Stanley on keyboard and trumpet. There is a spare seat where a flautist should be but apparently she has been “lost to the booze” and can be found downstairs at the bar.

Martin Callingham live at the Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol

Martin Callingham live at the Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol

The band plays only a handful of songs, each one of them demonstrating Callingham’s abilities as a songwriter. There is a sorrowful undertone that anchors each of them, on The Weight Of The Line Callingham sings “I can’t steer us safely out of here” his voice momentarily losing its sense of fragile hope. Songs about Bristol landmarks such as Hare On The Hill and Portland Square please the gathered locals, the latter a ghostly show closer.

Callingham will return in February for more live shows and promises to bring a bassist and drummer with him but this evening has the feeling of a special moment that wouldn’t be improved with the addition of a rhythm section. The clanging of pots emanates from the pub below and only adds to the occasion. Just as listening to a demo of a song can often reveal it’s true essence, tonight’s gig feels like a glimpse into the soul of Callingham’s material and everybody in attendance leaves feeling lucky to have been part of such a special evening.

Words & photos: Duncan Haskell

Martin Callingham’s debut album Tonight, We All Swim Free is out on Folkwit Records on 16 February 2015. For more details visit Martin’s official website:

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