I don’t want this blog to just be about albums I loved, so today I’m going to tell you about PJ Harvey’s latest live show. You know, already, how much I love this woman. From Dry, through Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire, Stories From The City…, Uh Huh Her, White Chalk, the most recent Let England Shake and a couple of collaborations with John Parish, Polly Jean Harvey has consistently left me breathless. She’s managed that whilst, in the vernacular of The Wire, “changin’ up” with every album. Which sounds kinds of obvious, but I reckon is actually some acheivement.
Despite my long held love for Polly, I never actually got around to seeing her live until she toured the Uh Huh Her album in 2004- thanks, Jo! She opened her show with Meet Ze Monsta and within minutes, I was reduced to the brink of tears, overcome by the sheer perfection of her voice. Criminally, we missed out on her one woman White Chalk shows, so the next time we saw her was when touring her second album with John Parish two years ago. Despite being at the very back of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, she made light work of the distance between us with another stunning vocal performance. That was the last we heard from her for a while, until The Words That Maketh Murder appeared on the Guardian’s website a few weeks back. When will I ever learn? I didn’t pay much attention and it wasn’t really until Berlin and The National show happened that I began to really listen to this most magnificent of albums. That was only last week, admittedly, but a sublime live performance from la Peej really hammered home her latest work’s greatness.
We arrived at The Troxy around 8ish, there was no support act (I heard someone say), there was however a rather large queue already snaking around the corner.. To be fair, the queue quickly disappeared and we were soon marvelling at the sight of a hot dog stand in this most art deco of London venues. We got a spot about three rows back from the front of the upper level standing and settled in to wait. No support meant that the stage was pretty much set up and there wasn’t much to look at and nor was there much to listen to either. I suspect that would be exactly as PJ wanted it, because it made her arrival on stage, along with John Parish, former Bad Seed Mick Harvey and Jean Marc Butty all the more gratefully received.
Polly took her autoharp stage left from our point of view, Mick took a seat at the keyboard set slightly back from centre stage and John stayed stage right. The band kicked into Let England Shake which set the evening’s proceedings up rather nicely, next came The Words That Maketh Murder as the band played five new songs straight out. When we’d seen her with John Parish, they’d concentrated on the new album in its entirety, so I was half prepared for something similar here. However, The Devil (from 2007’s White Chalk) followed by The Sky Lit Up dispelled that notion. At some point around then, someone implored her “Please say hello!” but Polly wasn’t for talking. I kind of liked that in a way, as it forced me to concentrate on the music, but I don’t think it’s something your average performer could get away with. Obviously, Polly is far from being just “average”.
Returning to the tracks from Let England Shake, she brought my favourite track from the album, The Glorious Land to the party and I had the moment I’d been waiting for all evening. Yes, dear reader, I got all teary eyed as Polly forcefully declaimed our country “What is the fruit of our glorious land? Its fruit is orphaned children”. I nearly went again during a beautifully rendered Battleship Hill, with John Parish adding his vocals to its beautiful lament. Then, Polly kicked things up again with the huge sounding Big Exit. It could have sounded out of context, but the lyrics “I see the children sharpened knives/ I see the children dead end lives” and the rather more obvious “I want a pistol I want a gun” remind you that hopelessness doesn’t just exist on designated battlefields. The Colour of the Earth closed the main set out, as it does the new album and, despite a regal wave, nod and mouthed “thank you”, Polly still hadn’t spoken to us!
Returning to the stage, she thanked everyone and introduced the band to us all. Though I suspect that wouldn’t have been neccesary to any dedicated Polly watchers. Parish and Mick Harvey well known to everyone and Butty having played drums on PJ and JP’s last tour together.
Meet Ze Monsta opened the encore, with the audience contributing the neccesary backing vocals, Angelene continued things and showcased Harvey’s magnificent voice beautifully. But not as much as the final track of the night, Silence. From 2007’s White Chalk, I think this song is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly one of Polly’s anyway. It was an apt way to close out a stunning musical performance. A few days later, I’m sitting here thinking that there was a lack of spontaneity that didn’t really allow the band to build up momentum, with lengthy changeovers between songs. But, again, I think that was entirely deliberate. This was a performance, not a show. Likewise, there was an absence, generally, of people bouncing around and shouting along as you might have expected. But again, I think that’s no bad thing, as an audience we were compelled to concentrate on the music and that, after all is what we paid to listen to, not Polly chatting about her cats or whatever.
As we made our way through the narrow exit doors of the Troxy- no big exit for us- I thought about how we had heard Down By The Water and heard it played without guitars, a new experience for me. I also wondered why it is people, grown men, feel compelled to wear hats to music shows when they’re likely to be standing in front of people. Unless you’re on stage, it’s not big and it certainly ain’t clever.
Battleship Hill live from the Troxy (Sunday, 27th February):