by Rory McInnes-Gibbons
Comfortably late, the lights drop and Polly Jean enters stage right accompanied by a full band of blokes clad in black. The aesthetic is sombre. The mood demonically dark. If we are conjuring spirits then PJ Harvey and her band are what they ought to look like.
Stage crafted to within an inch of their theatrical life, there is not even a glimmer of excitement as the morose middle aged men trudge onstage like a band marching. Which, of course, they are. It is only at the end of the evening that they stop performing and start connecting with their audience in the joyous recognition of a last smile.
The orchid within their midst is the main woman herself. Bewitching in feathers, she is the slightest of nymphettes with the stage presence of a flock. It is a rare musician who makes performance the highest of art forms. Drama, exhibition, tonight is more than live music. It is music sprung into life. At the fingertips of those pale arms, songs transform into beings.
PJ averts centerstage, concealed in the centre ranks. She enters playing saxophone. Though the most accomplished of multi-instrumentalists, it is her voice we are here to commune with. Elegantly hovering to the front of the stage, she finally takes the mic on opener “Chain of Keys.” The rest of the night flies past in a heartfelt haze of the most eloquent, emotionally honest poetry.
At times loud, at times delicate, she is always scintillating. Her words speak louder than songs. They transcend their form to become perfectly structured, tight works that evoke and emote in equal measure. Sonically, they are supported by the baritone bastion of the band. PJ’s sometimes shrill cries, accentuated by the deep, perfectly harmonised backing vocalists that surround her.
Harvey’s 2011 album, Let England Shake told the tales of pointless savagery and heartbreaking loss in the context of the First World War. Her latest release, the clumsily titled The Hope Six Demolition Project, is a concept album centred upon the Hope VI urban regeneration project that led to social crises in Washington D.C.
Together, the two albums work well live. There was no huge shift in sound between the releases. Therefore, material from both segues smoothly and there is no friction within the set. Though the music is similar in its tone and the atmosphere they produce played live, the content of the lyrics brews a rather bizarre blend.
The difference of scale between the two projects can be seen in the contrast between lyrics like “Why don’t I take my problem to the United Nations?” on the macabre, “The Words That Maketh Murder” and “They’re gonna put a Walmart here” on “The Community of Hope” that broods, but on a more localised level. Harvey has reined in her scope, but by no means to the detriment of her storytelling.
She leans heavily upon the new album which keeps the set fresh. The energy of the band is obvious as they perform songs of which they penned their parts. The percussion section is flawless, standing centerstage at the back, Kenrick Rowe and Jean-Marc Butty drive the sound. Meanwhile, longtime collaborator Mick Harvey mops up keys, bass, guitar and vocals. They are a dynamic band, all connoisseurs in musical excellence, sadly there are too many members to mention each in turn.
During the recording process, the band were locked into Somerset House where members of the public could come and watch them jamming, recording or just chilling. Watch being the operative word. They were working in a soundproofed box, denying the idlers any chance of getting a snippet of their new work. This kind of intimacy continues tonight. Only now fans can actually hear PJ and her comrades.
While “Chain of Keys” represents the grand entrance march, “The Ministry of Defence” is one of the angriest sounding songs Harvey has released. With three fierce guitars raging and riffing centre left, it is a cacophony of strings that collectively roar with angst. For those familiar with London’s ministries, the song bares a resemblance to the Orwellian Ministry of Justice in its startling brutalism and jagged, snagging rhythms.
As the cold, concrete stage set slowly climbs into position behind the band, PJ Harvey, who made her name exploring the deepest, darkest recesses of human emotions seems something strange: austere. But during the night, there are times when everything is stripped bare and pared down. The audience comes into play. The simplicity of the thread that binds Harvey’s vocal chords to the heartstrings of the crowd.
Twenty one years since To Bring You My Love, the gurning guitar and purity of the vocals stand out on the song of the same title. It is the agony and honesty that the crowd craves in Harvey, and we get a glimpse of this sensational songstress in her isolation. But when you have a band of this quality, no one is complaining.
Featured Image: Rory McInnes-Gibbons