PJ Harvey, Victoria Warehouse Manchester, 3/11/16
“The woman’s old/the woman’s old and dressed in black…”
Clad in swishing lengths of draped black, a black leather micro skirt and black-feathered skull cap, tonight Polly Harvey cuts a figure that exists somewhere in a venn diagram which overlaps goth rock chick, voodoo witch doctor and – what’s she probably aiming for – carrion crow. The war reportage of Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project took her to Kosovo, scene of the meeting with the elderly gatekeeper in ‘Chain of Keys’, the song which opens proceedings tonight at the packed Victoria Warehouse.
Since the Uh Huh Her tour, Polly Harvey’s last major trawl across venues in support of an album, her appearances have become distinctly hand-picked. Inevitably this means that if you want to see her, it’ll be in fairly large capacity venues. The management of Victoria Warehouse know this too obviously, as the ‘8:15 prompt’ stage time on the tickets comes and goes, people are still streaming in, despite the auditorium being pretty solid from front to back. Bad luck if you’re stood behind someone tall or with a particularly impressive haircut. Meerkat head action and ballet en pointe footwork is required at times to keep an eye line on Polly, particularly when someone raises their mobile phone in benediction to record eyewitness footage that won’t make a bit of sense when viewed the next morning. This kind of thing can drag you out of the spell at a gig, but thankfully the show that follows is so confident and distinctive you’ve little choice but to stay involved. By the end, PJ Harvey has played for the best part of two hours, with no support band.
If you read the publicity for this tour, the names of renowned stage directors, lighting and costume designers might have led you to expect some kind of Pink Floyd multi-media blow out. Or more likely, something in the hinterland of Harvey’s friend and musical contemporary, Bjork. What it actually means is a rock show staged with a spare but pointed sense of theatre. Starting as is now customary, with the band trooping onstage to a martial snare drum beat and saxophone drones from Polly and Terry Edwards, ‘Chain of Keys’ and other songs from The Hope Six Demolition Project are to the fore in the first half. As the gig progresses, the set list makes sorties back in time, first to Let England Shake, for several songs that have quickly become popular standards in Harvey’s canon. From then, back again to the underrated but pivotal White Chalk.
Slower tracks like ‘Dollar Dollar’ and ‘To Talk To You’ from White Chalk allow Harvey’s voice to expand and encompass the audience in a way that her higher pitched singing elsewhere, subservient to her new mission of documentary song making, perhaps doesn’t. The long term fans welcome the return of vintage songs and along with them, the deep blues moan that she seems to have consciously and permanently abandoned in new material. It’s a mark of just how far Polly has come and her determination to keep moving forward, that when she switches back into old Polly-phonic blues-wailin’ mode, its theatrical nature is even clearer than when she first sang these songs. Harvey relishes the melodramatic howl of ‘To Bring You My Love’, stretching the word ‘love’ into an operatic vibrato so long it’s almost a standing wave. Paradoxically, the oldest song Polly plays tonight, ’50ft Queenie’ suits her new band to a tee, a celebratory thrash by multiple punk Bo Diddley’s, powered by booming multiple bass drums. It’s probably the song that would accompany the opening titles if Nickleodeon ever make an animated series based on Harvey’s rock life.
Arranged to suit the large band full of eloquent and seasoned players, the old songs are infused with new energy, in particular thanks to Terry Edwards, Saxophone Hero. The newest songs give centre stage to sax over guitars, and Edwards’ two spotlight moments on ‘Ministry of Defence’ and ‘Ministry of Social Affairs’ bring proceedings to a standstill while the audience applauds his virtuoso Cubist jazz skronk. The punishing sax and guitar salvos of ‘Ministry of Defence’ echo off the walls and the stark backdrop, a trompe l’oeil abstract of tessellated squares, suggesting brutalist concrete architecture seconds away from being demolished by munitions. One stray round already seems to have taken out the traditional drum kit set up and scattered individual components across the stage. These are salvaged by the nine strong band who then use them to reassemble rhythms, held together with syncopated hand claps.
It wasn’t long after Harvey’s initial success, amid the guitar effects pedal bull market of the early 90s, that her sense of the theatrical came to the fore and allowed her to stand out from her peers. Utilising strong visuals and styling courtesy of Maria Mochnacz, Polly Harvey maintained a protective distance between herself and audience and critics thirsting after autobiographical trauma. When I first saw her perform in 1993 at the Duchess of York in Leeds, Harvey said little between songs and let the music do the talking. Nothing’s changed there, apart from an occasional thank you for applause and introducing the band by name. As she sings, Polly in her inky costume emphasizes the lyrics with precise, carefully chosen gestures and occasional dance moves. In fact not quite dance, it’s almost sign language, like BSL translation inverted to form unreadable subtitles to the action unfolding before your eyes.
The only part of the traditional gig circus that survives to crawl out from under rubble tonight is the encore. Encores are my personal pop bugbear, a ritual that’s long since emptied of meaning. After the show they’ve just seen, I’d have thought the crowd could leave it as it stands, or at least put the effort in and sustain riotous applause until the band are forced to return in order to satisfy them. Certainly they were prematurely eager to clap over the deliberately extended fade out to ‘To Bring You My Love’; still Polly and her band of brothers dutifully reassemble to give the audience their money’s worth. This takes us through a rollicking version of ‘Highway ’61 Revisited’, before leading straight into a slow, simmering curtain ringer of ’The River’ from Is This Desire?
Lights up, the packed crowd breathes out, spreads and disperses, finishes their £5 pint, retrieves their £2 worth of coat and goes to queue for their £n of taxi cab away from the red brick cavern of Victoria Warehouse. Most of the crowd who made it inside the auditorium went home happy, but none were happier than the venue management who managed to fit two audiences where only one should be. It seems to be what you have to do if you want to see your musical heroes these days. Polly Harvey once joked that she’d probably end up eighty and toothless playing blues for drink in the back of a pub somewhere. Am I alone in actually looking forward to that gig?