Thebby was a steaming sweat-box for PJ Harvey last night. While the scorching temperatures of the day gave way to an evening storm outside, Harvey’s ten-piece ensemble created a tempest of their own for the packed audience inside. It was an atmosphere well suited to the apocalyptic mood of Polly Jean’s ninth studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which comprised the majority of the setlist. Over the course of the show, the record was performed almost in its entirety, with just a judicious sprinkling of older material providing a nod to Harvey’s impressive legacy.
PJ is a stunning performer. It didn’t matter that she scarcely spoke for the duration of the 90 minute set, only engaging to introduce the band two thirds of the way in. Instead she let her music do the talking. You get the feeling that Harvey never sings a casual lyric, that going through the motions is just not in her DNA; every word counts, delivered with conviction, expression and deliberate gestures. As a result, her concerns, political, social and personal, penetrate with laser precision.
She is also the kind of charismatic performer on whom your eyes remain fixed, with a purposeful energy in contrast to the disciplined stillness of the ensemble around her. And when she looks out into the audience you feel like she is looking straight at you.
The band of versatile musicians (including long time collaborator and former Bad Seed, Mick Harvey), have been perfectly put together to render the new album, with songs driven relentlessly forward with throbbing percussion and saxophones. The Hope Six Demolition Project, which sounded impressive enough as a studio recording, reaches new heights in this live performance, possessed with a relentless energy.
The show opened with five songs from the album in succession, starting with the spare and soulful ‘Chain of Keys’, followed by the noirish, punctuated rhythms of ‘The Ministry of Defence’ and building nicely into the dynamic ‘Community of Hope’. Harvey then dipped into a few numbers from her previous album and had the audience clapping along to the poignant ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’.
Recent lead track, ‘The Wheel’ proved to be one of the highlights of the show, its impressive wall of sound resonating with the enthusiastic crowd. Following this, the ensemble took us into a deep south juke-joint befitting the sweat soaked audience, with the bluesy ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ followed up by the appropriately raucous ’50ft Queenie’. Fan favourite, ‘Down by the Water’ then had the audience singing along.
The main set finished up with the haunting ‘River Anacostia’, paring the instrumentation back in a similar fashion to the show’s opening.
Returning for a two song encore, ‘The Last Living Rose’ from 2011’s Let England Shake made an apt conclusion to the night, with a pulsating aesthetic to match the newer material that had dominated the setlist.
PJ Harvey creates art with timeless music and lyrics that speak decisively to our world. It was a real pleasure to witness her creating this art for us on stage with her accomplished ensemble.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor
Photos by John Goodridge