PJ Harvey walked on stage to deafening screams. Her outfit a tight red top with a plunging neckline and a disco-ball-esque miniskirt might have had something to do with the commotion. Gone were the messy hairdo and downcast eyes that marked her appearance during her last tour. Harvey's hair was pin-straight and her demeanor was just as smooth. You almost forgot that there were other people on stage with her. Margaret Fiedler (from Laika) and Tim Farthing were on guitars, Eric Drew Feldman (from Captain Beefheart) played bass and keyboards, and PJ's gifted creative partner Rob Ellis sat behind the drums.
Since PJ wrote her recent album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, during a year's stay in New York City, her performances at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom on September 4 and 5, 2001, were sort of a homecoming. The last time I saw Harvey was on the Is This Desire? tour, and she looked disheveled, anxious, stiff. But the confident vibe on her latest CD made me expect a different show.
A small grin lit up Harvey's angular face, and, wasting no time, she opened the show with a lesser known B-side, "66 Promises," that lulled the crowd... but not for long. Cutting into "Big Exit," Harvey confidently strode across the stage, lunged backward and forward, and commanded the senses. The guitars didn't ring out as alarmingly as I hoped.
Their muted sound was frustrating, but Harvey's energy kept the song from being a total disappointment. "Good Fortune," "One Line," and "A Place Called Home" followed, and they sounded more rounded out.
After the first notes of "You Said Something," Harvey sweetly crooned the lyrics, which mention both Brooklyn and Manhattan. The moment seemed anticipated by many, as cheers drowned out the band. Harvey looked into the audience and gave a wide and genial smile, like she completely understood the feeling in the air (and this was before 9/11).
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While the crowd was buzzing over the new songs, everyone waited for some venomous older tunes. "Man-Sized" and "Dry" were just as awesome as when they first came out. Every note was delivered with a kind of scathing grace that epitomizes Harvey's earlier years. The theatrics grew when Harvey yipped and wailed "C'Mon Billy" and "The Sky Lit Up," and sang the dark and simmering "Down by the Water." Fiedler acted as Harvey's vocal shadow on the latter song, adding a sublime touch.
When not singing and strutting her goods, Harvey herself was pleasantly humble (perhaps a little too humble). In a refined voice, she spoke only to say, "Thank you. Thank you very much." This lack of banter with the audience adds to Harvey's allure and makes you want her even more. During a break between songs, a young girl in the crowd shrieked, "I love you! I love you!" The crowd laughed because the frenzy in her voice was very recognizable everyone felt it, but few dared to show it. Another expressive fan with a burly Brooklyn accent barked out "Paw-lee Jean!!" Harvey paid no mind to either crazed eruption.
Not to ignore the quieting effects PJ can have, "Angelene" and "Nickel Under the Foot" wrapped themselves around the audience. "The Best Thing" was executed as a beautiful duet with Ellis. Okay, enough of the quieting effects.
By far, the highlight of the performance was a solo rendition of "Rid of Me." Harvey took center stage with her guitar and ripped the song to shreds, mostly with her eyes closed. The intensity could've crushed your skull. It sucked the wind out of the crowd and left them wobbly. People figured "Rid of Me" was her last song, but it would've been downright excruciating had Harvey ended the concert while the crowd was ready to combust. The similarly resolute "Horses in my Dreams" was the closing number. As she repeatedly sang the line "I have pulled myself clear" over the gliding music, it felt like Harvey was trying to prove that she's not the scorched woman you remember. She's evolving as an artist and as a human being. This performance made it clear that Harvey's not going to be your tortured darling anymore. Well, not for now, anyway.
More PJ Harvey on NY Rock
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