Wednesday, January 18, 2012

PJ Harvey: State Theatre Sydney 18/1/12 Review

I unequivocally hate any review or interview with a musician where the writer talks about their clothes (excepting maybe Gwar). Sadly, that's how I'm going to start this review because it seems that whatever PJ Harvey is wearing is a barometer of her music temperament. When she first toured Australia on the back of the Stories from the city record, she was dressed in a sparkling red gown that somehow reflected the glamour and sexiness of that era's sound. On her next tour, she was all tough leather and skulls with a punkier sound harkened back to the primal roar of Rid of Me. Her next tour was on the back of White Chalk where she performed solo in a matron dress that was akin to a austere 19th century school teacher with the music not being too far behind that image.

And tonight? Her dress resembled what I imagine a 16th century witch would wear, a long flowing black gown augmented by long dark feathers protruding from her hair. The music was similarly dark and mysterious but prophetic, sophisticated and unrelentingly adult. While this may all sound like superficial posturing (it is), it also underlines something about PJ Harvey. Every part of the way she represents herself and presents her music is part of a greater whole or art project - it is part of the show and it is designed to provoke and move the listener.

On a darkened stage, PJ moved in and out of the light like a dark spirit singing her songs of war and alienation, a chronicler of the end times (which is in some respect is a constant threat throughout history) whether it be the first world war or the war for identity in modern England. Part of the Sydney Festival, the concert should have been called PJ Harvey plays Let England Shake as she played the album in its entirety with a few old songs tossed in for good measure (Down by the water, C'mon Billy, Angelene, Silence etc). PJ Harvey is not kind to fairweather fans as anyone who came along expecting the hits, PJ says go fuck yourself.

The night started off shaky with the first few songs suffering from a poor mix but once the band found the right balance and the stand out tracks from the last album appeared mid-set, the band started to swing. The bracing The Glorious Land sounded rawer and heavier live with the floor tom sounding like a bomb going off while The Words That Maketh Murder was a sinister yet joyous highlight of the night. Ably backed by Mick Harvey, John Parish and Jean-Marc Butty, the band complimented Harvey sympathetically and played second fiddle to her startling voice - an instrument of such power and purity, it's hard to imagine it comes from a woman so slight. Harvey herself played a lot of harpsichord and regardless of who plays that instrument, it will never be cool - ever (not that she'd care but Harvey probably gets closest). There were a few quibbles, the samples on Written in the Forehead got lost in the mix and Harvey's playing was sometimes drowned out by the keyboards. But these are minor flaws in an excellent night of music.

The thing which struck me most about this evening was that it was less of a rock concert and more akin to a theatre performance. The crowd was respectful and hushed between songs as the stage fell to darkness and applauded at the appropriate times. A few brave souls yelled out song requests but to that guy who kept yelling for Rid of Me, I don't think you were quite getting the tone of the evening. Harvey, in some ways, has transcended her older work and those songs would seem out of place in this context. She has ascended to the mantle of an artist who has moved beyond conventional popular music and exists in her own creative space, one she has formed outside of fashion or artifice. For those of us lucky enough to follow, we can all bask in the glow of an artist who is both singular, passionate and brilliant. Whether on record or in concert, PJ Harvey is one of the great musicians of our time and this was clearly on evidence tonight.


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