Published on February 21st, 2008 | by Hans Fruck0
PJ Harvey — Hamer Hall
I’m not a religious man, but I swear PJ Harvey is a goddess. Last night she played Hamer Hall, touring her recent album White Chalk. It was sublime; it was beautiful; it was awe-inspiring. I quite enjoyed it.
Each time I see PJ perform, live or even just on TV, I’m struck by the incongruity: she doesn’t sound how she looks. She’s a petite woman, with a voice like a howitzer. She’s a wearer of genteel-looking frocks and heels, with a demon hand on guitar. Her songs are a galvanising jumble of fragility and damage, but her persona, when she sings, is aggressive and assured. On the night, even her jokey between-song patter with the audience (I’ve never seen her so talkative) was strangely at odds with her mostly pitch-black songs.
This isn’t criticism, mind you; I like the unexpectedness of it all. I dig the disorienting vision of PJ wearing an oldfashioned, puffy-sleeved dress, swinging a guitar and gyrating to a beat. (It’s the musical equivalent of the jumbled timelines in a Jeunet and Caro film.) But I do have this odd sense of displacement whenever I see her. Conflicting signifiers. Kinda like finding out Winona Ryder is the world’s greatest badass, or Clint Eastwood a repressed interior designer.
This is the fourth time I’ve seen PJ. Previously, I’ve seen her play as part of a three-piece and a four-piece band. Last night it was one-woman show — apart from the encore and one song in the initial set, she was the only one on stage. When my business associate Vincent Blackshadow told me it was a one-person show, I must confess to being a little worried. I can’t help it: one-person shows always conjure up visions of some dude going at it hammer and tong with harmonica, accordion, and kazoo strapped to his person, and a recorder wedged up his arse.
I needn’t have worried. Most of the new songs off White Chalk are sparsely instrumented anyway, and as PJ commented to the audience, she was pretty much performing demo versions of her older songs. With the exception of Down by the Water and Big Exit, which didn’t quite fly in stripped-back form, this worked a treat. Her songs have great bone structure; even if you remove some of the lipstick and eyeliner, they’re still great. And I guess when the tunes are as strong as this, and you have PJ Harvey’s voice, performing solo is a cinch.
In fact, it was amazing just how easily PJ managed to reproduce her songs solo. At one point she used a metronome plugged into the amps to keep the beat. At other times, she played the piano, while she had a harmonica hooked round her neck on a frame. She used a variety of programmed beats, and effects pedals while on guitar. Her vocals often came in reverb-drenched waves, which was stunning in Hamer Hall (home of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), as it has crisp, gorgeous acoustics. Some of her tricks were surprisingly simple, like on Man-Size when she faded-out her vocals by walking backwards away from the microphone while continuing to sing.
Just by varying her vocals and piano playing, from soft to peremptory, she gave the songs startling dynamism, the kind of trajectory and depth that most five-piece bands can’t manage. It was monumentally fucking brilliant. I’ve never heard a better live singer than PJ. Never. Anyone who has her albums knows how vocally demanding her songs are, yet live she doesn’t fudge any notes, doesn’t play it safe. Unfalteringly, she attacks the highest notes and aces them, half the time outdoing anything on her albums. It’s jawdropping stuff. Seriously, from yelps to shouts, howls to falsettos, operatic blasts to mumbles, she brained practically every note. Most of it while playing a piano or a guitar or shaking a marraca or fiddling with some weird synthesiser.
PJ’s set seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, but must’ve been well over an hour, because in that time she worked through most of the songs off White Chalk and a smattering of songs from Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire, Stories from the City, and Uh-Huh Her. Inevitably, when you’re talking about a back catalogue like PJ Harvey’s, some favourites aren’t gonna get played — I was hoping for Rid of Me; It’s You; and Perfect Day, Elise. Even so, she played a good selection, doing justice to her raw, ferocious early material and to the various phases she’s been through since.
It’s years since I first saw PJ, but some things just don’t change. She’s still brilliant. I’m still awestruck.