PJ Harvey has never disappointed me any of the five times I’ve seen her in concert. Each of those shows has been riveting. I’m not sure anything will ever compare with the deeply moving and cathartic experience of seeing her perform just a few days after the traumatic events of 9/11, but every other Harvey show that I’ve seen has been memorable in its own way.
She was back in Chicago on Friday night (June 12) after an absence of too long. It was too bad she did not come here to play the songs from White Chalk when that album came out in 2007, but it sure was cool to see her again now, playing in tandem with musical collaborator John Parish. Their second album as a duo, the recent A Woman A Man Walked By, is a great record — better than their first collaboration, the 1996 CD Dance Hall at Louse Point. That one was a fine record, but it had the feeling of a side project, of two artists experimenting toward a combined sound. They’ve arrived at that synthesis this time around, with Parish writing strong and distinctive music and Harvey delivering striking words and vocal melodies.
As a live act, it’s strange to even think of them as a duo. Harvey is clearly the focus of everyone’s attention. Parish gets equal billing, but he stands there somewhat shyly just playing his parts. What else could you do if you’re on the stage next to Polly Jean Harvey? She’s one of those stars who’s beautiful in an unusual way, musically talented in so many ways, with a strong personality, who can make her presence felt with the smallest of gestures. At many moments Friday night, Harvey was doing little more than standing there at the microphone, calmly and coolly … what, waiting? Pausing? Meditating on the next note she would sing? And even in such minimal moments, she seemed like a lively presence on the stage.
And then at moments, the contemplative music gave way to outbursts of ferocity — as on the new record’s lacerating title track. Harvey dropped her voice to dramatic depths or let it soar to lovely highs, as the characters from her lyrics seemed to possess her. She sashayed and gestured across the front of the stage as she poured out her passion — and then danced all around her backing musicians as the song segued into its instrumental coda, the intriguingly titled “The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go.” For a moment, the spotlight fell on Parish as he played an extended guitar solo, a timely reminder of the fact that this is the guy who wrote all the music we were hearing tonight. On another intense new song, “Pig WIll Not,” Harvey barked like a dog into the microphone — as if normal singing was simply inadequate to contain what she needed to express.
This was a more satisfying concert than the similar show Parish and Harvey performed in March at SXSW — partly because the songs were more familiar to me now, and partly because they played a little longer, adding a few songs and stretching out some of them. It was still a bit short as concerts go, and I would have loved to hear some of Harvey’s solo music, but it seemed appropriate that this was a night for showcasing the invigorating music she’s doing with Parish.
I did not take photos Friday night, but you can see a couple of beautiful pictures by Kirstie Shanley on flickr here and here. And the photos I took of Harvey and Parish at SXSW are on my blog here, with several extra photos on flickr here.