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AIN’T THAT A KICK IN THE HEAD: PJ HARVEY DELIVERS ANOTHER BLOW TO WIND BACK WEDNESDAY

June 18, 2019

Having been thrilled by Anna Calvi on Sunday night and been put in mind of another small frame/outsize impact Englishwoman with guitar who delivers the kind of visceral show you feel on your body for days later, like fresh bruises, it was time for the girl from the black country.

 

As this review from late 2004 shows, when Polly Jean Harvey wanted to rumble, you were best advised to not run away but - hell yeah! - get in the way, and let her and her band have their way with you.

 

That's bankable life advice from Wind Back Wednesday. You're welcome.

PJ HARVEY

Enmore Theatre, December 2

 

 

Some years back, while being beaten up by a bunch of teenage toughs in the middle of the CBD (and they hadn’t even read my review yet) there was this moment of clarity and stillness during a furious maelstrom.

 

Halfway through, as I was being held immobile by one and punched by a second, the third let loose some kicks to the head. At one point during the kicking, for what seemed like an eternity until the thudding connection was made, I watched a foot coming towards my face - the detail of the shoe ever so clear, like some close-up still photograph.

 

As stupid as it sounds, during this interminable wait for foot to meet face I thought to myself: right so this is what it feels like … fascinating.

 

PJ Harvey, in a white shift dress with a large Muppet print on the front, white cowboy boots and what could have been a pre-teen’s calico shoulder bag with hand-stitched initials, doesn’t look capable of any harm. But she led a pummelling assault, a serve of force and fury which sometimes rode on a pair of drumkits, sometimes had no more than a lone guitar but always had volume and roiling drive.

Beginning with the slap in the face and matching slug to the gut of 50 Foot Queenie and without a word to us until the fourth or fifth song, this PJ Harvey band rattled loose change and teeth.

 

While the ever-present Rob Ellis rolled and pounded the main drum kit and occasionally ducked into a nest of keyboards, new guitarist/second drummer Josh Klinghoffer and bassist Dingo (who needs a second name after that?) provided what felt at first like untutored haymakers. But their contributions revealed themselves to be more nuanced, though no less penetrating.

 

Those nuances were never more obvious than during the love song of menace and murder, Catherine, where they rumbled and threatened but remained sotto voce. Here Harvey whispered lovingly “I envy the road, the ground you tread upon” and, with almost no difference at all in tone – for love and hate are so thinly separated when obsession rules – “’Til the light shines on me/I damn to hell every second you breathe”. Ouch.

The album on which Catherine appears, 1998’s Is This Desire?, was, along with the recent raw to the bone album Uh Huh Her, the principal contributor to the set, as much in terms of philosophy as material.

 

So the older A Perfect Day Elise (double drums, low centre of gravity swagger, the momentum and threat of early Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) seemed to come naturally out of the building tension of the new Shame (with its fabulously dark line that “shame is the shadow of love”).

 

(Mind you, although it was one of only two songs from the more pop-focused Stories From the City Stories From the Sea album, no one was surprised to have Big Exit appear in the set, in a less refined manner than the recorded version. There’s nothing better to focus the mind than someone striding across stage singing “I’m scared baby/I wanna run/This world’s crazy/Give me a gun”.)

In this context the assaulting Who The Fuck?, from Uh Huh Her, felt at home, with swift musical kicks to the head followed by two-fisted pounding and all of it accompanied by a satisfied grin from Harvey underscoring how much fun, how liberating it can be to let some demons free.

 

And yes, as punishing and loud and physically demanding as a lot of this show was, there was in the centre a strange but satisfying stillness. In it you could see and feel the upheaval around you but be able to look at it and think: so this is what it’s like … fascinating.

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