PJ HARVEY @ Fremantle Arts Centre

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Fremantle Arts Centre
Tuesday, January 17, 2017

9/10

Polly Jean Harvey is an enigma. Like some kind of mysterious, primal force she sweeps through town and puts on a show like no other, and then disappears into the night. The English singer-songwriter and visionary has been around for the better part of three decades, and in that time she has evolved from a grungey, gothy, rock chick into a ethereal, theatrical chanteuse. A unique creator of concept albums that are intelligent and epic in their scope.

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She is almost peerless these days – Tori Amos was perhaps the only female artist that came close to her in terms of intense performances and commitment to her craft – but Tori hasn’t continued to develop and intrigue in the way Harvey has. Fans would know she was last here in 2012, touring her highly acclaimed album, Let England Shake, at Perth Concert Hall.

DSC09759Now touring last year’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, and with a new band to boot – this time it was the more relaxed and picturesque Fremantle Arts Centre. While it was definitely a different, less intimate vibe, it was still undoubtedly another incredible performance from the singular PJ Harvey. She had the crowd in her grips from the first note.

The lights went down just after 8pm, as the band made their grand entrance. Coming on stage like a marching band procession, led by a snare and big bass drum (inscribed with the ornate album art), the 10-piece band took their positions. Harvey herself was playing sax, and hung discretely near the back at first, as they kicked into the droning intro of Chain Of Keys.

She slowly walked forward to the mic and started singing, holding her sax aloft – as she did throughout the night, using the instrument as a prop. Sax is featured heavily on the new album, somewhat akin to Bowie’s Blackstar. It seems she’s now less rock and more operatic. She never broke out her guitar or auto-harp.

The sharply dressed band played in front of an ominous 3D visual backdrop of a kind of concrete bunker, which rose from behind the stage during a cracking performance of Ministry of Defence, giving things a kind of militaristic look.

DSC09778Probably the best song on the new album, and the opener, Community of Hope sounded even better live. Harvey has always been one of those artists whose live performances seem to infuse her songs with even more energy and emotion.

After tearing through almost half the new album, she delved back into Let England Shake, playing several consecutive tunes including the title track, followed by an awesome rendition of The Words That Maketh Murder – with the band leading the crowd in a clap-along – and the magnificent This Glorious Land complete with resplendent guitar solo.

Not having to play guitar really freed up Harvey to immerse herself in performance. She really knows how to put on a show and is incredibly dramatic, lunging side to side in her black, flowing outfit with a head-dress like a Shakespearean thespian – or a more refined, brunette Kate Bush. Harvey drew all the attention, and was mesmerising as she prowled the stage, arms flailing.

There was some serious sax action all night – from PJ herself, displaying her versatility – but more-so from virtuoso Terry Edwards. Stepping out front with a white sax for his moment in the spotlight on The Ministry Of Social Affairs, he was incredible.

DSC09808Going way back to 1992’s Rid Of Me, the rockin’ and rollicking old tune 50ft. Queenie lifted the energy levels, but compared to her recent material, it almost seemed out of place.

Much in the way her concerts are like a theatre performance, there was no crowd interaction or banter, apart from the obligatory, odd thank you, and introducing her incredible band, including the inimitable Mick Harvey and long-time collaborator John Parish. Some people might feel she could engage more, but it’s just not her style – when she’s performing, she inhabits her characters – any idle chit chat would detract from the drama of her magical stage presence.

The set finished strong with a couple tracks from 1995s To Bring You My Love – the primal, rhythmic Down By The Water, and the title track, which was a soaring highlight. Still one of her greatest songs, it builds and builds, as she showed she can still belt out some powerhouse vocals.

Her songs are infused with such poetic imagery – the haunting River Anacostia was a fitting closer – culminating with the whole band solemnly incanting the mantra “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water”. They lined up for a bow and left the stage to rapturous applause.

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A brief encore comprised her cover of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, which ended with a cacophony of horns, followed by Is This Desire? which has experienced renewed popularity thanks to Peaky Blinders. It’s a gorgeous track, but very mellow and seemed to be a bit of an anti-climatic finale, leaving everyone in a bemused, dreamlike state, but somehow, that seemed perfectly appropriate.

Words and photos by
ALFRED GORMAN

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