A stuttering drumroll heralds the arrival of PJ Harvey onstage, sliding in as one in a line of black-clothed musicians who are either hitting marching band drums or bearing woodwind instruments that ooze out the ominous notes of opening number Chain Of Keys. A slow-burning group chant, the track sounds like the kind of war march you might play ahead of a battle you wholly anticipate losing.
Things pick up a few songs later with The Community Of Hope, the opening cut from last year’s Hope Six Demolition Project from which much of tonight’s set is drawn. Taking a leaf out of Regurgitator’s book (one presumes unknowingly), the record was cut in a specially made studio in London’s Somerset House, with regular plebs like us able to watch the process through glass. Which sounds interesting enough, but its onstage that these songs – fairly bleak observations on the modern world mapped over bustling rock arrangements, an ever-present horn section and burly all-male backing vocals – really hit home.
The de facto title track The Community of Hope is a perfect example, a jarringly catchy ode to urban decay in Washingon DC. Live, it kicks too, with a thumping beat and four electric guitars pounding out the same chords in unison. When six voices join Harvey in the hollered reprise “They’re gonna build a Wal Mart here!” it perfectly captures the mixed feelings of joy, rage and malaise the corporate giant has left in its wake across America, an opportunity to some, exploitation to others. Delivered in such a fist-pumping singalong fashion, it’s almost unclear where the song sits on the matter. Almost.
With a horn-like headpiece made of black feathers Harvey prowls around the stage microphone in hand, not touching a single guitar for the entire performance. Experiencing her voice live for the first time, its quite a revelation.
When she does pick up an instrument it’s the saxophone, one of her earliest musical outlets that tonight sees her frequently drop back in line with her backing musicians as other players take the limelight. Polly Jean even joins in on that back-and-forth stepping dance that I can only assume all saxophonists are legally obliged to perform onstage. You know the one.
Reuniting much of the personnel from the Hope Six sessions, tonight’s nine-strong band includes notable longtime collaborator John Parish and recurring Australian foil and erstwhile Bad Seed Mick Harvey. While the new album is aired in its entirety along with several selections from 2011’s Let England Shake, the biggest response is inevitably reserved for those mid-90s, now-taught-at-universities classics like Down By The Water and To Bring You My Love.
They are joined in the final leg of the set by newer track River Anacostia, which ends with a repeated line lifted from century-old American spiritual chant Wade In The Water to form a strong thematic link with the tracks before it. Returning to the stage for a two-song encore, closer The Last Living Rose from Let England Shake offers a jangly, acerbic reminder that Harvey talent is as fierce as ever.
PJ Harvey performed at the Thebarton Theatre on Thursday, January 19
Photographer: Kristy DeLaine – AKPhotography