Tuesday 21 April 2009

P J Harvey and John Parish - Shepherds Bush Empire 20 April 2009

Polly and John by Paul Jay

The stage is bare. There is no backdrop. Are we going to get an extravaganza of whizzy back projection? No.

Four men in dark clothes and battered hats appear and the audience cranes its collective neck. Their wild whoops of joy confirm the presence of the diminutive Polly Harvey, who is dressed in an outfit that is part way between Balkan princess and belly dancer.

The band breaks into the sleazy bluesy grind of ‘Black Hearted Love’. Polly wails and marches purposefully to each band member in turn, as if reassuring herself that each is playing their part. Although tonight’s entertainment is designed to showcase the songs of Harvey and John Parish, the latter is quite content to let his musical partner run the show.

In contrast to past appearances in which she has seemed terrifyingly distant, tonight Polly is positively chatty and genuinely nervous between songs. Yet once the music starts up again she’s all business.

As well as plugging the current album, Parish and Harvey disinter tracks from their previous collaboration ‘Dance Hall at Louse Point’ which came out all of twelve years ago. The contrast in the old and new material is marked – The Louse Point songs are very much variants on traditional blues rock whereas those from ‘A Woman a Man Walked By’ are much more sparse, characterised by lengthy almost- silences that allow space for Harvey’s vocal tricks.

Harvey’s last solo album ‘White Chalk’ saw her leave her usual musical territory and deliberately push herself in new, challenging directions. At that time, this was manifest by piano-led songs and an uncomfortable falsetto. This current set of songs show her still experimenting with her voice, shouting and actually barking like a dog on “‘Pig Will Not”. Her eyes are amused, her smile sardonic. A rare sight indeed – Polly Jean Harvey is having fun.

The audience is wrapt and with her wherever she leads them. When required, they are so still that even the quietest, breathiest utterance from the stage can be heard. Harvey has always had this power over crowds.

With really only one album to draw upon, it is a relatively short set, and one that I would rank as good rather than great. This is a side project and obviously so. John Parish remains a loyal and proficient lieutenant while Polly Harvey is happy to relax for once.

It will be interesting to see what she does next.

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