Wednesday, January 25
No opening act – thankfully! – and at just after 8pm PJ Harvey and the all-male 9-piece backing band of multi-instrumentalists take to the stage with side-drummers shuffling them on in a near-funereal march. Backlit, save for a spotlight on the star, it’s to half a dozen songs straight up, from last year’s album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. By the end of the evening the band will have performed the entire record, by the end of the show I’m sure some attitudes will have changed. Some grumbles around the new album being hard to take are surely dismissed – likely shattered – as fragmentary/sketch-songs like Dollar, Dollar and The Orange Monkey and anti-gentrification odes such as The Ministry of Defence and the album’s title track tumble from the stage amid the syncopated clatter of a drum groove cleverly split between two standing players, the shrieks, shronks and honks of up to three saxophones and four or five guitars spitting out sinewy lines. Holding it all together, ethereal as Kate Bush, clever as Bjork, a widescreen concepulist pulling at the heartstrings of each song and wrestling them into performance-art/installation shapes is PJ Harvey. Mesmerising, intoxicating.
The new album was – and is – a stunner. There’s never been any doubt in my mind but this celebration of it, and of the continued artistic development of one of the best and most consistent artists of the last 25 years is sonically joyous, emotionally taut and visually affecting. The men in black in back behind her grind the gears, they’re shadowed, shadowy, always easy to feel not often easy to see and then Harvey moves to side of stage to usher in each new song with a dance-move, sometimes slipping back into the sax-pack to wail an intro or outro.
The deck is shuffled and a handful of songs from Let England Shake start to appear. The title track from that album is what really announces the fact that Harvey is playing various roles, nearly one for each song. Here she’s like something you might meet down a cobblestoned side-path in an early episode of Blackadder. Eerie-voiced, creeping across the stage, you could be forgiven for expecting to hear the sound of crow-caws and talk of visiting the Wise Woman. Forget Stevie Nicks’ white-witch pageantry, this is almost creepy. Majestically so.
The decision to split the grooves between two drummers, Kennick Rowe and Jean-Marc Butty, is both tactical and theatrical; two big bass drums sit on stage like props, Butty and Rowe work at them offering separate vestiges of the groove; we get a clip-clop of military might, there’s precision to their playing but always just the slightest of lags between the ideas offered in this two-part horse of rhythm. It looks spectacular too, Butty angled down over a big bass drum, and issuing sharp tics from the hi-hat, and it’s as if he’s a mechanic working under the hood of rhythm. Rowe stands proud over a snare drum performing the rolls and flourishes and rimshots, accenting Butty’s tinkerings. Beneath them and sprawled out as if in the shape of a set of lungs various guitarists and keyboardists swap instruments with ease. They keep the music breathing in and out around this rhythmic framework, no pretty melodies here, it’s grunt-work, transmogrified blues – from field holler to Arts Festival in a, well, heartbeat. Providing that heartbeat for each and every piece, always, is PJ Harvey. Her voice – spellbinding.
As we get deep into the set a couple of classics from the 90s albums are sent out in an almost magical cloud of fury. This band – featuring two of Harvey’s key right-hand-men, John Parish and (the unrelated) Mick Harvey as well as Alain Johannes (Them Crooked Vultures, Mark Lanegan, Queens of The Stone Age) – makes short work of 50ft Queenie from 1993’s Rid of Me. It was dispatched, almost as if to say “yes, we can do that primitive stuff too” – but that’s not quite right, there’s no disdain, only ominous sound. The same is true though for new songs such as The Wheel (Hope Six) and The Words That Maketh Murder (England Shake). Time stands still. The music – proud, glorious – rings out.
Somehow, and only Polly Jean can make this all seem so simple as she evokes eras that haven’t ever happened and creates genres without antecedent, we can go from the guttural lurch of To Bring You My Love and that album’s huge highlight, Down By The Water, back into balladry with sweet, piercing high notes.
A word too in the direction of chief saxophonist, Terry Edwards. More Albert Ayler than Tim Cappello.
From White Chalk (2011), the album that signalled the start of at least one new direction from PJ Harvey, the gorgeous When Under Ether was hauntingly beautiful. That was the album where she first put down her guitar. Those ghostly ballads showed one other side to her musical personality. The writing – the act and art of writing – has seemed foremost in the creation of both Let England Shake and Hope Six; the former a type of history, the latter a road-diary of musical journalism. But on the stage we saw and heard and felt the powerful dance of those album, the huge musical spirit of the songs, the band and the creator of this wondrous music.
The set closed with River Anacostia seeing the band members leave the stage in a manner similar to how they had arrived, one by one, piece by piece, a final drum-beat, a hum of the tune and a staggered disappearing act behind the curtain.
They returned to play The River (from 1998’s Is This Desire?) not only a perfect closer but a perfect encapsulation of the lyrical and musical themes of the evening in one snapshot.