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THE MESMERISING HISTORY-NOW OF PJ HARVEY


PJ Harvey ICC Sydney Theatre, January 22

There are no coincidences with Polly Jean Harvey. What she offers on record and stage, in her sonic and visual presentation, is not just carefully thought out but minutely calibrated.

You can hear it in the way the older songs in a set dominated by her recent albums of history reworked and the present coloured in as history, were all drawn from stories that could easily be mythic or folk tales.

You can see it in the band drum-marching on stage in formation like a firing squad approaching its task[; the striking line walked between elegance and rags, will-o’-the-wisp and solidity in her costume; right down to the way every band member held position for seconds in the dark at the end of each song, until she moved.

It’s true that it was an accident of timing that we in Sydney were seeing her on the same weekend where millions of women (and not a small number of men) marched around the world to both protest against a misogynist demagogue thinly disguised as a president, and to remind him and themselves that he and his kind do not define them.

However, that political bastardry was not unforeseen or even new to this month, this past year or this generation. And this theatrical, dramatic, physical and intellectually vibrant performance was ready, and had been ready in some ways for decades, to be the show-in-response.

A show where not only was Harvey surrounded by an all-male band and their massed voices, but the sounds often played in “masculine” tropes of heaviness in percussion, guttural undertones from saxophone in particular, and martial beats. One where songs were filled with the after-shocks from, the remnants of, the resistance to often brutal “masculine” behaviour in government offices as much as armoured personnel carriers or bombers.

Not that any of it can be broken down to something as simple as confrontation or resistance or sublimation or contrast.

Harvey, who spoke only once, to introduce the band, sang in varied voices: high and vulnerable, earthy and powerful, inveigling and demanding.

Around her for much of the first hour at least those saxophones – three players, including Harvey who at times would retreat to her “post” alongside the other two during songs – and the percussion, rather than guitars defined the texture more than any of the reportage-style lyrics of the songs from her most recent album.

And when the bass and guitars asserted themselves in The Ministry Of Social Affairs and 50ft Queenie, even the slow soul devouring of Down By The Water, there was vigour and strong insinuation in equal measure.

Credit here too must be given to the quality of the sound, not just from her engineer but to this new room.

It was exhilarating, the room filled but not overtaken by the controlled cacophony, that could surge to power but at all times retained definition and even an element of delicateness.

When the set ended with the low pulsing, fragile but never merely ethereal, River Anacostia – a kind of by the rivers of Babylon lament for an almost forgotten land free of all manner of corruption - space hung everyone on stage and off.

When, after a rather long delay, they returned for the encore, the percussive, rhythmic take on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited redefined it in a way that put the body at the centre of the experience.

Theatrically expressive with hands and face and body, sometimes in precise extensions of liturgical dance, Harvey was mesmerising. She was equal parts Bowie, Kate Bush and Bjork, but new again.

As good as any of them and renewed again.

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