Who might you find yourself sitting next to at a PJ Harvey show? Perhaps actress Tilda Swinton? Or maybe New Yorker writer Hilton Als? Or any number of leather-clad rockers, men in suits, hippies, hipsters, beer-guzzling hecklers, pot-smoking yuppies, or, to your great dismay, the steel-haired old man screaming into his cellphone. These were just a handful of people who turned out at Harvey’s sold-out October 10 show at New York City’s Beacon Theater, one of only two U.S. solo shows Peej has scheduled this year to promote her acclaimed White Chalk. The crowd was rapturous, three thousand fans there to see their patron saint of all things lovesick hash things out with her trusty electric guitar.
Arriving on stage a little after nine and donning a white Victorian gown not too dissimilar to the dress worn on the cover of White Chalk, Harvey opened with the title track of her 1995 masterpiece, To Bring You My Love, making one very clear: She came to please. Having recently described her latest string of solo shows as a sort of retrospective, Harvey dug deep through her back catalog. And whether she played fan favorites ("Rid of Me," "Angelene," "Man-Size") or more personal choices ("Nina in Ecstasy"), all were received with deafening applause. But the night didn’t belong strictly to Polly Jean and her electric guitar. She came equipped with much more in her arsenal than that.
Early on in the show, Harvey said, "I brought most of my home with me to keep me company." From a piano decorated with Christmas lights and various knickknacks and ephemera, to an autoharp, a drum machine, a Kurzweil, floor keyboards, and a crash cymbal, Harvey proved she didn’t need a band to fill a theater with music. Her shifts between instruments were seamless and, in some cases, quite funny. While situating herself with autoharp and floor keyboard, she said she "had to use every limb and orifice" to play "Grow, Grow, Grow." Before playing her most recognizable hit, "Down by the Water," she said, "I don’t know if you can read my dress down there, but this is the lyrics to the songs."
After a powerful four-song encore that closed with the hushed "Desperate Kingdom of Love," Harvey left the stage for the last time, and Nina Simone was played as the house lights came up. As I made my way out onto Broadway, flooded with fans who were already recreating the show via scattered conversations, it occurred to me that Harvey and Simone have a great deal in common. Even at their most unsettling, there is an unquestionable intimacy and honesty to their work that most artists either aren’t willing to strive for or simply aren’t capable of generating. In Simone’s case, it stemmed in part from her passion for her race and the injustices they’ve endured. For Harvey, it’s much less political but equally personal. It stems from her relentless need to create music that isn’t always likable, isn’t even always listenable, but that nonetheless communicates a truth, or at least the essence of truth. This show was a testament to her unbridled commitment to her work, and a night those in attendance won’t soon forget.
“To Bring You My Love”
“Send His Love to Me”
“When Under Ether”
“My Beautiful Leah”
“Down by the Water”
“Grow, Grow, Grow”
“Rid of Me”
“The Desperate Kingdom of Love”
“When Under Ether” video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z-qAgfAOEWw
“The Piano” video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=jXXFD6dRV0s