If you’re going to see PJ Harvey in 2017, try to see her under the stars, where the sky can brood as purple-black as she does. That may not be possible many places, but in Los Angeles it is, and to hear Harvey’s towering indictments and witness her stoic performing persona while simultaneously looking up at trees and stars felt like a juxtaposition dreamed up in one of her vivid, visceral songs. Watching Harvey is an unusual experience, because in an age of social media oversharing, she remains completely closed off on a personal level. She may be opening up herself artistically with complete intimacy, and a deadset earnestness, but we get little access to Polly Jean herself. Perhaps, that’s been the better route all along.
At the Greek Theatre on Friday night, Harvey held court over a venue brimming with die-hard fans of all ages, who have been converted by her abrasive, unrelenting punk from 1992 onward. For the last twenty five years Harvey has helped carve out a space for female anger in rock that practically didn’t exist before her emergence. On the way in, clusters of young people smoked joints in corners, bootleggers offered $10 knockoff tees, and dignified-looking elders made their way into Griffith Park to take their seats before Harvey’s stage. There was no unifying demographic or aesthetic, her fans are as diverse as her many, consistently different records.
Polly Jean Harvey takes herself very seriously, and this self-seriousness is born out into every element of her live show. It’s there in her regal, imperious vocal delivery, and the way she preens and struts all over the stage, wagging her plumed feather headpiece like a crown. Harvey is 47, but she seems to have the energy and physical force of someone two or even three decades younger, and she carries the brunt of the show’s energy with haughty ease, stomping around the stage in enormous over-the-knee black boots that look like they were made for exactly such purpose.
Her ability to carry the crowd was no small thing, given the formidable 10-piece band who back her. The formidable band was dressed all in muted dark tones that made her purple tunic pop even more clearly. Even when she, at times, rescinded into the background to join her band on a sax solo, or make way for another player’s solo, it’s practically impossible to take your eyes off Harvey. When she wasn’t playing her sax, Harvey held it up next to her ear, taunt, like a sentinel with a weapon. Though she occasionally stepped off to the wings of the stage in between songs, lurking and glistening like a magnificent crow, it was still impossible for anyone else to capture the audience’s attention.
It is, perhaps, this same haughtiness that led Harvey to condemn American gentrification and the destruction of housing in a DC neighborhood on her 2016 album, the excellent The Hope Six Demolition Project. While the project’s sweeping economic and political criticism didn’t always hit the mark, the songs f*cking rock — and newer tracks like “The Ministry Of Defence” and “The Community Of Hope” came early on in the set, and were met with almost surprising enthusiasm from the crowd. Some fans may have already seen early performances of these tracks, which Harvey and her band worked on and recorded live, allowing spectators to purchase tickets to see the spectacle.
Of course, the crowd reactions paled in comparison to the reaction when deeper cuts like “Let England Shake,” “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Her new albums is certainly resonating, but it has yet to have the impact that her last record, 2011’s Let England Shake did. But the ebb and flow of the crowd’s reaction to her work had little impact on Harvey though, who spoke only once during the set to introduce every single band member, with fierce tenderness, by their full names. Plenty of of aging rock icons have threadbare voices, roughed up by the decades in between their prime and their later touring years. Not Harvey, her voice rings or clear, loud and clear as a bell, throaty, and seemingly impervious to time. She was there to perform and that was all she did; in the most inoffensive way possible, it seemed the crowd literally didn’t matter to her.
This might be the last remaining vestige of an original rock star; Harvey never once seems to wonder if her music and performance was good, or if anyone else would be pleased by it. She was, and that’s all that mattered. This self-containment is part of what preserves her status, even in an era where rock has been knocked off the pedestal it was enshrined on when Harvey was first emerging. Instead of attempting to bow or bend to the times, she has been able to preserve her own sense of style and taste, and subsequently, this show was utterly different in feel and tempo than anything else I’ve seen this year.
Still, the reactions were fun to experience from the audience, who often thundered their applause in between songs, but never was the enthusiasm more pronounced than late in the set when Harvey and her band began the bluesy bassline crawl that kicks off “To Bring You My Love.” An otherwise seated crowd jumped to their feet as one, roaring their approval and chanting alongside Harvey’s incantation of the lead song off her 1995 album of the same name. An encore that included Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” was the only other moment that rivaled this highlight, and then Harvey finished her succinct one-hour set with Let England Shake‘s hymn to her home country, “The Last Living Rose.”
“G*ddamn Europeans,” she snarled, “Take me back to beautiful England, and the grey, damp filthiness of ages,” before playing her saxophone for the final time in the last song of her set, and stoically marching offstage. In an age of nationalism, terror, and upheaval, Harvey’s music felt more timely and pertinent, even urgent, but she herself remained timeless and removed, eager to perform under the stars, and disappear back into the anonymity of the night.
“Chain Of Keys”
“The Ministry Of Defense”
“The Community Of Hope”
“A Line In The Sand”
“Let England Shake”
“The Words That Maketh Murder”
“The Glorious Land”
“When Under Ether”
“The Ministry Of Social Affairs”
“50 Ft Queenie”
“Down By The Water”
“To Bring You My Love”
“Highway 61 Revisted”
“The Last Living Rose”