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Two days ago, the great Polly Jean Harvey turned 54, and as has become custom in this corner, to celebrate the date, Wind Back Wednesday returns to an encounter with Harvey and her work.

This year we find ourselves in some kind of Victorian atmosphere, in 2008, in the most decidedly un-Victorian space at Bennelong Point. Button up, sit up, and pay attention for something different this way comes.

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Sydney Opera House, February 15, 2008

THE MICROPHONE STANDS IN FRONT of the piano, stage left, and the organ, stage right, had little plastic animals attached along their lengths. Atop the piano were various knick-knacks, the kind of things you would find on top of the mantlepiece in any home. Fairy lights decorated the amplifiers and the zither sat complacently on a chair at the back of the stage, on what looked like a home-made cloth.

It looked homely. Relaxed. Sweet even.

Yet when PJ Harvey arrived it was in a dress of studied blackness save for splashes of silver sparkles at one wrist and hem. While probably without the traditional whalebone (there's nothing to hold in on the waifish Harvey after all) it was high collared, long of arm and skirting the top of her feet (which we later saw were in typically vertigo-inducing heels) while her long, unbrushed black hair was roughly tied in an off centre knot above a barely made-up face.

She looked like a Victorian period widow, caught unawares by visitors.

The upright piano, with its front removed so that (appropriately enough if you think about it) its "guts" were exposed to us, sat there, and scattered bits of electronic and more old fashioned equipment waited attention. But Harvey strapped on an electric guitar, startlingly incongruous against her widow's weeds.

So, was this solo performance to be comfortable or tense, quiet or vigorous, playful or dark? Would she sing in the guttural voice of the blues or the high, plaintive tones of the lonely folk singer? Would we get the strut of Man Size or the drifting sadness of When Under Ether? Would we chuckle or feel a chill in our marrow?

The near genius of Polly Jean Harvey is that the answer to all of those contradictory questions was a definite …yes, all of the above.

There was rawness in the roughened guitar and the smashing of a cymbal, while you couldn't miss the tenderness in a murder ballad and deathly ardour in a ghost story. There was heavy distortion on the voice in one song, airy distance in another. There was Patti Smith and Sister Odetta, Thomas Hardy and the Brothers Grimm, propriety and abandon, "shame is the shadow of love" and "The beauty of her under electric light tears my heart out every time".

There was much to be had.


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