by Matt Saldaña
PJ Harvey and John Parish
Friday, June 5
Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
“Can I tell you something?"
P.J Harvey, the indie-blues songstress from Dorset, England, crouched onstage at the stately Warner Theatre in D.C. Her long, black dress, hanging loose from her shoulders, gathered in folds behind a row of distortion pedals.
“Can I tell you a story?” she continued. “It’s about me and Billy.”
“Billy" is one of Harvey’s many fictional lovers, the "steaming and sweating and sticking against the wheel” sort from the 1996 song “Taut,” a whispery, slow-groove confessional about guilt, religion and backseat sex. After delivering the first few lines (“I remember it all started when he bought that car/ It was the first thing he ever owned, apart from me.”), Harvey rushed to the edge of the stage. She delivered to the crowd her direct, hurried monologue: “And the color was red/ And the color was red and he drove me/ He drove me out of my mind/ I am over it now.”
Without warning, Harvey’s arresting falsetto—“Jesus, save me!”—shattered the song’s tension. She pounded the prayer-chorus into the ground with her fist. A woman in front of me dipped her head back, staring into the giant, pill-shaped concave that hovers over the back few rows of the 1920s D.C. theater like an upside-down swimming pool. After a few more appeals to God, Harvey ended the song abruptly. Fog-machine mist rose. She took a drink of water and launched into the rest of her otherwise mediocre set list.
If you were to take a poll among PJ Harvey fans regarding the singer-songwriter’s best song, “Taut,” which appears on Dance Hall at Louse Point, likely wouldn't finish first. In fact, Harvey could have played a full set of better songs from her 10 studio albums Friday night, and nobody would complain about its exclusion. But Alongside John Parish—her collaborator on Dance Hall and this year’s A Woman A Man Walked By—“Taut” was undoubtedly the night's best.
Harvey limited this brief U.S. tour, co-billed with Parish, to songs from Dance Hall and A Woman A Man, arguably the two worst albums of her prolific career. Yes, I knew this when I decided to drive five hours to see her play, but I couldn’t help but hear elements from some of her best songs in the bold, but not entirely fully formed, musical ideas that inhabit Parish and Harvey’s two albums together.
The last few lines of A Woman A Man’s “The Chair” (“Pieces of my life are gone/ Washed away in the water that took my son”), which Harvey delivered in breathless a capella, recall the creepy, maternal musings of “Down by the Water.” “Civil War Correspondent,” off Louse Point, has the slow, building pace of “Rid of Me,” but doesn’t take you as high, or low. At least the live version, bolstered by a five-piece band, sounded more crisp and direct than the relatively muted studio track. Even the opening line of “False Fire,” a b-side sung by Parish and Harvey, recalled the opening line of “The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore," from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
It was a delusional exercise, though, as Harvey wasn’t going to play any of those songs, my songs. Still, the self-imposed restriction seemed almost liberating for Harvey: As the title track from A Woman A Man deconstructed into a noise duel between piano and guitar, she pranced across the stage, tapping her toes, doing half-turns, smiling. At odds with her cherubic, curly-haired presence, she relished the song’s unsettling clincher—“I want your fucking ass"—as she screamed it.
“Cracks in the Canvas,” a soporific tune to which Harvey adds spoken meditations on death in her native British accent, made someone in the audience laugh out loud. That wasn’t the intended effect. The laughter might have been party due to her rarely heard accent and partly due to the, well, cheesy music. But Harvey soldiered on, breathing new life into A Woman A Man tracks “Leaving California” and “Pig Will Not,” which sound grating on record but nearly ethereal live.
For better and worse, I doubt there will ever be another PJ Harvey show quite like those of this tour. Though it might have been the worst time to see her, it remained a treat to see her act out these musical ventures in person. In a way, it reminds me of Bob Dylan’s recent shows: He clearly enjoys the improvisational abilities of his band and amuses himself with ragtime recasts of his greatest songs, even if it sounds horrible to the uninitiated.
The difference, though, is that Harvey didn’t even tempt us with bad versions of old greats. She tempted us with generally good versions of OK songs. To wit, a woman seated next to me, who hadn’t heard the new record, said she was hoping Harvey would play her own material. I didn’t have the heart to tell her (or myself) that she wouldn’t. But, when the lights came up after the quiet vocal-and-guitar tremolo of “April” ended a brief and unsatisfying encore, I looked over at my neighbor. She was in tears.
“I’m really glad I came,” she said.
For a moment, forgetting all the great songs I didn’t hear, I couldn’t have agreed more.
1. Black Hearted Love
2. Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen
3. Rope Bridge Crossing
4. Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool
5. Civil War Correspondent
6. The Soldier
8. Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil
9. The Chair
10. Leaving California
11. A Woman a Man Walked by
12. Passionless, Pointless
13. Cracks in the Canvass
14. Pig Will Not
1. False Fire