Victoria Warehouse, Manchester, 3 November
We arrived at Victoria Warehouse for PJ Harvey with some trepidation, based on apocalyptic reports of overcrowding and poor sound levels for John Carpenter the previous week. And as it happens some disgruntled punters did again walk out in disgust at their inability to see the stage (see here for instance). However if the venue itself was a let-down for some, for those of us blessed with a good view – managing to manoeuvre ourselves to a decent spot near the front – we were treated to an astonishing performance from Polly and her ensemble of nine (all male) musicians / vocalists. To be honest, having been round the block a few times, it takes something special for me to be impressed by the big guns in the music business. But PJ is one of those rare artistes whose adaptability and total unwillingness to compromise has made her as potent and relevant today as she was when she emerged seemingly fully formed in the early 1990s. Showcasing songs from her latest LP The Hope Six Demolition Project this is theatrical spectacle as much as it is ‘a gig’. Parading in formation on the stage with marching drums and saxophones for opener ‘Chain of Keys’, PJ and her musicians maintain a stony-faced personal distance from the audience throughout, ensuring we focus on the lyrics, the music and those vocals. With eight songs from the Hope Six Demolition Project – a record of Harvey’s war and poverty travelogues – and a handful from her Mercury Music Prize winning Let England Shake, there was added pertinence, it being the day the right wing press went into nationalist meltdown over the Brexit high court legal ruling. Harvey’s much more overtly political recent work somehow manages to capture the Brexit Blues and the misery of austerity and militarism and imbue it with something cathartic. Her vocal range is astonishing, shifting from crystalline soprano in ‘The Devil’ from White Chalk, to the deep growling in earlier work such as ‘To Bring You My Love’ and ‘50ft Queenie’. The multiplicity of musical styles keeps the audience transfixed, fluctuating between sparse and ethereal in the heartbreaking ‘When Under Ether’ to the full blooded stomp of ‘The Wheel’. Integral to this whole project is the remarkable ‘backing band’. Kitted out in sombre black jackets they switch between a bewildering array of instruments, with long-term collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey at the helm, with Parish flitting between marching bass drum, guitar, keyboards and vocals. Military style drums and woodwinds predominate. Saxophones and rock music often make for uneasy bedfellows but there is a complete absence of cheese tonight. Some of the highlights are when several of these instruments collide, sometimes deliberately discordantly, and swamp the audience with their bassy buzz – especially in ‘The Ministry of Defence’ and ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’. For the latter, Terry Edwards gets to be centre-stage with a small white sax, letting rip in a way which brings to mind Bill Pullman’s nightmarish frenzy in David Lynch’s film Lost Highway. The way the male voice ensemble holds much of the Hope Six Demolition Project material together brings on the kinds of goosebumps I imagine would be evoked by a Welsh choir echoing through the valleys. The earnestness with which these performers carry out their task might be too much for those who expect a bit more audience interaction. The only time Harvey’s mask drops is to introduce the band members by name. There is much applause after each song but during their performance the audience stand politely in reverence. I struggled to engage with the latest LP on first hearing, worried that Harvey had overreached herself with overly sincere handwringing. But treated as a cohesive theatrical experience with Harvey the absolute rock at its centre – sometimes bobbing, weaving, writhing, snarling and occasionally haunted, childlike, candid – the music moves into a different dimension. Special mention to ‘This Glorious Land’ from Let England Shake. It’s a cliché that middle age ushers in increasing sentimentalism, but when I first heard that track on the LP I fell apart (thankfully alone at the time). Since then, every time that guitar riff and those trumpets break out over the opening drum rhythms I have to metaphorically punch myself in the face to hold it together because they usher in that devastating chorus. Tonight was no exception – the mood lightened only briefly by my better half muttering ‘stuff your fucking poppies’ at the end of the song! I feel sorry for all those people who had to leave in disappointment at the state of the venue, as they missed an artist at the height of her powers. As we marched out into the Trafford air in a similarly orderly fashion to those on stage, it felt that earnestness still had its place in a world where the importance of being ironic, cynical or just plain vacuous predominates.