With a brief “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” and a warm smile, PJ Harvey takes to the stage of Brighton’s Corn Exchange for the first night of her European tour. Despite Polly’s extensive back catalogue this is no greatest hits show. Instead the music played is derived from the two albums that Polly has created with her long term friend and collaborator John Parish. Parish himself and several other members of the less than youthful backing band sport trilby hats and look more like a jazz ensemble than a rock band, but rock they do; creating a dark, off kilter and often fantastically disturbing noise. Polly meanwhile is dressed in a black dress and for some unexplained reason plays the whole gig with a small handbag over her arm. Maybe she’s going to dance round it later.
Starting with Black Hearted Love the music tonight is stunning, powerful and varied. From the simplicity of ukulele fronted The Soldier to the sad and lonely spoken word of Cracks In The Canvas every song played outweighs the recorded versions in its punch. With Parish and band focussing on the instrumentation, Harvey is left to concentrate on vocals and dramatic theatrical performance. Every song she presents is like a new character in a book. Sometimes she stands motionless singing in a ghostly, scary falsetto. Then at other moments her slight and frail looking body is prowling the stage like a wired aggressor, delivering a guttural bluesy howl as she rasps with an evil glint in her eye “Now its my time to laugh, I’ll stick it up your fuckin’ ass,” before the whole song cascades into a frantic dirty wig out. It’s incredibly physical and superb to watch; and certainly never gets boring. For the encore she envelopes the microphone to elicit a roughly bristled tone as she sings “How could I have worn inappropriate clothing?” Then, taking a step back she opens up with powerful clarity “I dreamed, I dreamed, April, that I’m walking, that I’m watching.” It‘s a vocal that resonates with electrifying power. It is no wonder that the audience great her with ecstatic applause.
PJ Harvey is not only a superb vocalist, but a spectacular and engrossing performer who completely immerses herself into her show. She is one of the most creative and darkly exciting live artists Breaking More Waves has seen in a long time, and quite easily the best gig we have attended so far this year.