The Hopeless Renovation Project

PJ Harvey                           some shithole warehouse, Wolverhampton,  4th Nov 

bird-hat1As mentioned in previous despatches, the Hickeysonic party bus found itself in  Wolverhampton last week to witness scary crow lady PJ Harvey’s last UK date of her current campaign. Short version – terrible, terrible venue, really breathtakingly bad, nonetheless the sound was good and the performance was fantastic, the current band are remarkable. Long version – more confused and contrary but somehow crystallises in this older clip that I really wanted to post. There are, should you care to look, several full shows from this year on youtube. You’d certainly get a much better view than anyone did at Wolves, possibly even a slight variety in the set list. As expected it comes almost entirely from the last couple of records with a spattering of older crowd pleasers. That’s fine, they’re good records and the new one builds upon and refines the developments of ‘Let England Shake’ I think. I’m sympathetic to whoever booked the tour and thought shows in warehouses would be good, perhaps wanting to avoid the slightly sterile chill that descends in seated venues on artists at this point in their career. There’s a laughably overpriced can bar that shuts as they take the stage and the toilets, only reached by forcing your way through the entire crowd, are chemical toilets. The uneven floor slopes away from the stage, the back of which is not tall enough to show off the impressive back drop and the roof is supported by a forest of iron pillars cutting down the already poor view. The previous night in Manchester had apparently been a similar debacle. In truth it really would have been better suited to a theatre. Polly is a grown up, award winning, artist now and her audience are aging with her, wide eyed youngsters who’ve fallen under her spell in the same way as my contemporaries are notably short in supply. I can’t remember a gig where I knew so many people. We shuffle about in our sensible dark clothes, our knees and backs ache from standing on concrete, this new stuff might be percussive but nobody’s going to be doing much dancing to it. There are two, possibly three, points in the evening when one might actually shake their hips with any conviction. It’s already theatrical, the airless solemn haze of seriousness has descended unbidden. The performance is ruthlessly martialled and honed, they march on stage playing, Polly’s florid hand gestures seem excessively mannered and over rehearsed. We’re a long way into the tour of course, and they’re impressive musicians, but the band are amazingly focussed and tighter than Blixa Bargeld’s waistcoat. From my limited view joy and abandon seem in short supply on stage. If you’ve ever seen James Johnston perform in Gallon Drunk or the Bad Seeds you’ll know what I mean. Spontaneity becomes a menace in such a large ensemble. To my surprise it has been ten whole years since I saw Polly live. A lot has changed and I’m trying to understand it I guess because in the previous ten years I’d seen her many times and watched her move through a variety of phases, such a big gap allows for essentially a completely new and different experience. That last time she appeared solo performing the stark and personal songs that would become ‘White Chalk’ a record so hushed and nakedly personal I found it hard to listen to. It seemed to prove an end to that line of writing for her too. For the subsequent records that form tonight’s show she has looked outwards to write about the world and not herself, a laudably smart and bold move for her own self preservation and as a continually developing artist. When you consider those are the three albums she’s put out in the last ten years then maybe the scarcity of younger faces in the crowd is less of a mystery – they’re pretty short on the immediate and emotional punk blues punch that made her name. “They’re gonna build a Wal-Mart here” or “All near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” are interesting lyrics but they lack the visceral immediacy and humour of ‘Lick my legs, I’m on fire” don’t they? That Polly, the one in the clip, wearing a dress with Animal from the muppets on it and singing a Slim Harpo song is gone. 30-40 minutes in she does the swooningly claustrophobic ‘When Under Ether’ and it’s like Polly finally arrived on the stage, stepping out of character and speaking straight to us. Observation and experience are different things. If we want to be harshly honest it was clear even then that ‘Uh Huh Her’ was a kind of reanimation and self caricature of Polly the witch queen of swamp blues putting it to bed with a last fierce hurrah. ‘Who The Fuck?’ indeed. I’m not down on this by the way, I’m impressed, but it is different. The Blues arrives instead as quotation, the sample of Jerry McCain that kicks off ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ and gives it that insistent hipshaking groove is somehow the clearest signpost so far that she can yet get even better at this, combining the remarkable immediacy of her early records with the formal innovations of the new, it ends wonderfully on Terry Edwards skronking away centre stage. The three sax, two drummer and everything else too line up of the band provides remarkable and unique backing. Despite their number the band are admirably restrained and Edwards is certainly its core driving force. The presence of Mick Harvey, looking ever more like Jim from Neighbours, in the band as well as Johnston combined with all the group singing and her own history has earned a fair few mentions of The Bad Seeds in connection with this line up. Watching them though I’m struck by how it’s Einsturzende Neubauten it most echoes. It might seem odd on the surface but the considered pulse, unfolding sonic textures and choral vocals are closer to later Neubauten, the apocalyptic drama of the Bad Seeds is missing, the real kicker is the approach to the writing though. I have the odd thought that I’ve never seen Polly and Blixa in a photo together. Best I can find is a performance of ‘Henry Lee’ on The White Room but there were surely other times they were in the same place. She hits the home stretch with ’50ft Queenie’ a dizzying rock’n’roll punch to the throat, then ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘To Bring You My Love’ all seemingly crowd pleasing concessions and yet sounding absolutely incredible. They finish on the set piece of ‘River Anacostia’ dissolving into ‘Wade In The Water’ and disappointingly the singing crowd don’t carry on alone when the band end but break straight into applause and cheering. Because we’re spectators not participants here. Shake Your Hips baby.

 

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