Monday 28 February 2011

P J Harvey at Troxy - 27 February 2011

P J Harvey

It’s a cold and damp February night in the East End of London. However, the venue is packed and hot and buzzing with anticipation. Performances by P J Harvey are as rare as a solar eclipse and tend to be just as dark and mysterious.

When the pitch black stage is suddenly bathed in light there is a collective intake of breath at the bizarre creature in front of us.

Polly Harvey is a tiny shape swathed in a dress that might best be described as a contemporary take on Victorian widow’s weeds. Her head is crowned with a magnificent tower of black plumes. She’s dressed for the Ascot Ladies’ Day of Death.

Her band, Mick Harvey, Jean-Marc Butty and the ever loyal John Parish are nattily turned out as 19th century card sharps. It’s a good start before they even start playing.

The first song is the title track from the new ‘Let England Shake’ album, which is played pretty much in its entirety this evening. Harvey coos in her newly powerful falsetto, twisting from foot to foot and thrumming a tightly clasped auto-harp.

As the song stops, all the lights are extinguished and the stage goes dark until the next song begins. This is repeated throughout and means that each tune is performed in isolation from that which precedes it and the set unfolds in a series of tableaux.

The band next assay ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and there is a gradual, urgent build up of tension until the final lines that quote ‘Summertime Blues’ “I’m gonna take my problem to the United Nations”. This reclaims the lyric from a petulant teenager’s whine to something much more deadly earnest.

The album, and this set, is an emotional rather than a political response to English and Australian involvement in foreign wars, both historical and current. The weight of this theme makes for a slightly heavy evening. It’s all brilliantly done, and much of the music is genuinely jaunty, but you do feel slightly guilty for hollering and whooping after each number.

Harvey lays down her harp and grabs a guitar and the set progresses to encompass songs from her back catalogue. There is a magnificently sinister reading of ‘Down by the Water’. It is clear that although there is serious business at hand, that Polly is enjoying herself.

Returning to the new album there is a stirring rendition of ‘The Glorious Land’ replete with a trumpet sample playing ‘taps’. ‘All and Everyone’ is equally strong, from its opening line of “death was everywhere” onwards. Impressive yes, jolly no.

The abiding genius of Polly Harvey is that she can make songs that are as emotionally searing as this into crowd pleasing anthems. Despite the funeral home demeanour, this is definitely an upbeat evening.

Even so, it is with some relief that when the band come back for an encore it is with ‘Meet Ze Monsta’. At this stage, Harvey even unwinds enough to finally speak to the crowd, generously thanking her fellow musicians.

P J Harvey don’t play often, and when they do, it is an event. Tonight’s gig is all about the commemoration of those that have gone before. Polly Harvey is something of a national treasure herself.

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