The first of two nights in Brixton, on a relatively small, although geographically wide tour, P J Harvey brought her highly anticipated show to a fevered and adulatory sell-out crowd on a beautifully mild, autumnal evening south of the River Thames.
The Academy is an old building full of character and atmosphere. Rather like the Tardis it is bigger on the inside than on the outside, with a capacity of just under 5,000 it proves to be an ideal stage for what is ultimately a theatrical show; a fully immersive and spellbinding visceral experience, as Polly fuses rock ‘n’ roll and visual dynamics with calculated precision.
In much the same way that the late David Bowie transformed, chameleon-like, over his career, P J Harvey has similarly become different personas over the years.
Initially brash and formidable yet inspiring and empowering, she has morphed into a more sublime, enigmatic and multi faceted performer.
From the confident stride of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Uh Huh Her, through to the damaged ghostly waif of White Chalk and now more recently a politicised and objective observer of a world in flames with Let England Shake and the current work Hope Six Demolition Project, she has blossomed into one of the most creative and intuitive singer song-writers on the planet.
Always fascinating and forever inventive she is the woman who fell to Earth, a beautiful avenging angel, our fifty foot Queenie who knows Steve Albini AND Nick Cave.
So tonight, before an imposing geometric backdrop and discreet lighting, her (very) large band walked single file with great solemnity to their instruments. Polly entered last in line to great cheers and they ignited proceedings with Chain of Keys, one of the standouts on the new album, which dominates tonight’s performance.
Chain of Keys swooned (as do I), soared and roared with its lovely melody and tremendous vocals. Passionate renditions of the Ministry of Defence and the vibrant title track ensued.
After this she traveled far and wide over her not inconsiderable back catalogue.
Is This Desire was an object lesson in hurt, Words That Maketh Murder stunning, complete with hand gestures, mime and a stage presence so captivating that grown men are seen to weep.
An absolutely riveting version of Bring You My Love, with long time collaborator John Parish was worth the admission alone. It proved a desolate rumination in the key of unrequited.
The two-drummer set up was thrilling on The Wheel, never has the phrase ‘heard it was 28,000’ been shouted by so many so loudly.
Ministry of Social Affairs then had Terry Edwards blowin’ up a hurricane on a white sax.
Down by the Water was another mesmerising re-imagining of one of her most revered songs, all the time gliding across stage, Elfin-like, with dangerously thin arms and expressive body movements.
Yet rarely if ever showing any emotion on her face she looked almost android, a human but not human. Live she is almost otherwordly.
Let England Shake and especially This Glorious Land were exceptional too.
The encore contained a very pleasant surprise, Highway 61 Revisited from the classic Rid of Me album.
As for Fifty Foot Queenie, it was a howling banshee of female sexuality, it took on a life of its own, and at one point I’m convinced it tried to shag me.
Utterly fucking fantastic.
Words by John Haylock, pictures by Arthur Hughes