After receiving an email to inform me that PJ Harvey will be on stage at the exceptionally early time of 8pm it is obvious that there will be no support tonight. Luckily, Ms Harvey is 20 minutes late that allows me time to scope out this new venue and purchase a beverage before finding a vantage point. Unfortunately, due to the shape of the venue and my stature not being over six foot means that I am not able to see the whole stage so apologies if I missed some of the on stage activity particularly that of the musicians at the back.
From the entrance to Chain of Keys it is clear that this is less of a gig and more a piece of performance and musical art, as the musicians march on stage with playing a repetitive drum pattern and collection of saxophones sustained notes. PJ Harvey moves to the microphone to deliver a pitch perfect vocal line whilst making strong gestures with her hands to express the sentiment of the lyrics. As the song draws to a close the musicians move, in a choreographed manner, to their respective stations on the stage and considering there are ten people this a well-organised affair. The set continues with tracks from her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which has received critical acclaim as it is a thought piece inspired by her visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC and is her first solo album in five years. The Ministry of Defence illustrates the accurate timing required with its dramatic stabbing introduction, not an easy feat with so many people on stage yet their precision is faultless. As their leader, Harvey is a strikingly delicate figure adorned in a feather waistcoat with two feather horns whose volume and charisma defy her physique and despite whatever else maybe happening on the stage she holds the audience’s attention.
During the brief instrumental segment, Terry Edwards manages to play two saxophones at the same time of various sizes to produce a dischord that enhances the unsettling atmosphere of the song. The ever-increasing crowd is clearly au fait with this new album and The Community Of Hope is a popular choice yet appreciated with complete reverence allowing Ms Harvey and her musicians the opportunity to deliver a performance that is free from interruption and means others are allowed to embrace the ambience that is being created. The Orange Monkey demonstrates the vocal competence of many of the musicians who provide skilled backing vocals throughout harmonizing effectively whilst at the correct level. It would be remiss of me not to mention how fantastic the sound is generally, it is evident that during this tour PJ Harvey has an effective sound engineer who manages to produce the best possible mix for every song. Alain Johannes starts Let England Shake on what appears to be a rudimentary short scale ukulele that leads into this quirky number that incorporates a different selection of instruments including violin and keyboards. Considering PJ Harvey’s musical career began as a three piece, having so many musicians perform with her could be seen to be excessive, yet this line up is phenomenal including artists famous in their own right such as Mick Harvey and John Parish all of which bring an inimitable quality to each piece of music.
PJ Harvey’s dramatic interpretation of lyrics continues with The Glorious Land that sees her move around the stage with utter desperation being relayed through her facial and bodily expressions which contrast directly with When Under Ether that sees her stood still bathed in a solitary white light. The Wheel sees a musical change of pace as its gutsy saxophone riff penetrates over the clapping rhythm that holds the song together seeing much of the audience singing the catchy vocal line “And watch them fade out”. However, this doesn’t compete with the whallop that is delivered with 50ft Queenie which sees Polly expose the vocals and angst that connected with so many in the early 1990s. This is the first of the night’s three finest songs. Down By The Water with its seductive quality easily translates to suit this line up with the subtle use of maracas and pizzicato violin. The solitary guitar line welcomes in To Bring You My Love and even though PJ Harvey’s vocals are typically of a higher range with this track the dynamics she incorporates into an alto line are so powerful as she spits out each word producing a dark menacing composition.
It becomes obvious that an extended version of River Anacostia is the final song of the set as the musicians return to the positions they took initially at the beginning, all moving as a unit to the front of the stage finishing with drums and maracas supporting the repetitive line. The only words that have been said all night are from Ms Harvey introducing her band and as they line up to take a bow you gain a sense that you have witnessed a complete artistic work that has been scrutinized and constructed in such a manner as to produce every song in its finest format. Interestingly, she chooses to perform an encore of two songs, Near The Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln and The Last Living Rose both of which are delivered in a comprehensive manner yet it feels to lack the passion of the main set and as they leave the stage I can’t help thinking that the performance would have had greater impact without the encore. As one of the audience explained, “You can never believe that PJ Harvey is really that good until you see her live, I am totally in love with her”. PJ Harvey has cemented her place as a musical genius that is uncompromising in both her composition and live performance.
Review: Toni Woodward
Photograph: courtesy of PR