PJ Harvey’s performance at the Brixton Academy last night cemented my belief that she is England’s greatest living musician.
In fact, calling her a musician barely seems to do her justice. At times last night, she appeared to be a rabble rouser, a magician, a ghost at her own feast. This is the fourth time I have seen her and whilst each time before has been brilliant, something else happened last night. It’s difficult to explain it. All I can tell you is that during her mid set rendition of The Devil, from 2007’s White Chalk, her keening voice seemed to be summoning all sorts of mystical forces into the Academy. It was genuinely spine tingling.
There was no warm up last night, no music playing to keep us occupied as we waited for PJ Harvey and her band to arrive. I think this was because there was no point, nothing could really prepare us for what was about to unfold. And so Jo and I stood and chatted and listened to the rising voices filling the auditorium.
And then, at around 8:45, the lights went down. And then a drum beat. Nothing could have prepared us for how powerful that drum, those drums, would sound. PJ’s ten piece band drummed their way onto stage and into Chain Of Keys. Saxophones joining the drums to create a wall of sound. PJ alternated between her perfect voice and that saxophone in her hand as she spun her tale of tragedy.
Guitars and drums launched into The Ministry of Defence as one. The staccato guitar riffs and backing vocals echoing Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus driving the song home. In another setting, with another artist, The Community of Hope might have generated a singalong with its “They’re gonna put a Wal Mart here” refrain. However, nobody in the crowd had come to hear themselves sing.
After five tracks from The Hope Six Demolition Project, we got four from Let England Shake, all were rapturously received. The Kraftwerkian rhythm of The Glorious Land just speaks to my soul; the combination between Jean Marc-Butty and Kenrick Rowe on their respective drum kits only highlights this. On The Words That Maketh Murder, PJ wheeled around the stage crying “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” as if looking for anyone who would listen to her. Spoiler: we were all listening.
It’s a tribute to Harvey’s enduring magnificence that, despite possessing such a formidable back catalogue, she was able to hold us in the palm of her hand whilst concentrating on her last two albums. Just as I was thinking that, things took a slight left turn with the haunting To Talk To You, from White Chalk. PJ really took centre stage here, the lighting arranged so that she was spotlit as the band melted into the background; her voice soaring above the circular guitar riff.
It was saxophones to the fore on the four to the floor, balls out rocker, The Wheel. The band converging around Harvey as it delivered a clattering cacophany of sound. With any other artist, I think this would have been my, nailed on, set highlight. The saxophones here sounded dirty and immense.
As they did on The Ministry Of Social Affairs. This song is PJ Harvey really back where I found her. I’m certain this song would have fit in very well on 1995’s To Bring You My Love. It opens and closes with a refrain of “That’s what they want, oh yeah/ Money honey”, this eventually gives way to those saxophones. It’s as the song comes to its climax that Terry Edwards comes into his own closing out the song with a beautiful, discordant, solo.
The punk blues of 50 Foot Queenie totally changes the temperature in the room. Yes, Polly Harvey, you almost certainly are “the king of the world” and we do hear your song.
And then, and then and then, the song that tethered PJ Harvey to my heart (or did it tether my heart to PJ Harvey? I’m not sure) 21 years ago; Down By The Water. The 10 piece band version of this tale of water bound infanticide felt definitive.
Next came To Bring You My Love. PJ wandering over to stand on John Parish’s shoulder as he teased out the blues riff that introduces this song sticks in the mind. And that voice, oh my God, her voice as she sings “I’ve lain with the devil, cursed God above/ forsaken heaven to bring you my love/ TO BRING YOU MY LOVE!” . The restrained power of these desert blues transported me far beyond the confines of the Brixton Academy and into a trance.
That trance like state was only enhanced by River Anacostia. Another demonstration of power held back, PJ’s voice, repeatedly calling out “What will become/ what will become of us?” with crystal clarity, rose over the keyboard and drums. But, really, this one’s about the spectral “Wade in the water/ God’s gonna trouble the water” chant which closes the song out. Everyone except John Parish, back on the drum, as he had been at the very start, downing their instruments to close the main set out.
I almost didn’t want an encore after that perfect ending, but we got one anyway. Highway ’61 continuing the bluesy vibe before the title track from 1998’s Is This Desire? provided a relatively quiet full stop to the evening. Despite the crowd clamouring for more, and the fact that the lights didn’t instantly go up, I knew instinctively that she wasn’t coming back. All that was left was to fight our way back up the Brixton slope and, a little breathless and stunned, back into the night air.
Polly Harvey had spoken only to introduce the band, and to say thank you at the end and nobody cared. I mentioned earlier about her crystal clear voice. Let me tell you, backed by her ridiculously tight band, she was note perfect all night. I took no photos, there was no talking around me; this, truly, had been an unforgettable, magical night.