Friday, 24 April 2009

PJ Harvey @ Shepherd's Bush Empire 20 April

'Now we all know why we're here', drawled Howie Gelb, the supporting warm-up, 'so don't worry, I'll keep this short.'

We all knew what he meant - that the packed out O2 Academy, Shepherd's Bush Empire, to give it its full title, was only waiting for PJ Harvey. Crucially, I imagine that the turnout was for Polly Harvey alone, even though her long time collaborator John Parish was also on the bill and they were promoting an album they've written together.

'Crucially', as this was a flat gig, occasionally threatening to ignite but almost always undermining itself: I suspect that this had a lot to do with the material and how it works as part of Polly's stage act. They played all the tracks from the new album and a couple from Dance Hall. Black Hearted Love was the opener; The Chair worked in the space and April, which isn't great on disc worked well as an expansive encore number.

Yet The Soldier, a favourite of mine on disc, was insubstantial in concert. Even The Chair dried up right in front of our ears with its wistful coda of regret, inappropriate for this event. Polly seemed distracted or bored, her performance in so many songs amounting to little more than singing along to herself whilst doing the washing up.

What was really galling though were those moments when she did come alive. A Woman A Man Walked By and Pig Will Not had her thrusting herself out to the front of the stage, belligerent, sexual - literally a taller figure than in the rest of the set. These are two of my least favourite tracks on the album but they were the evening's highlights.

Part of this was to do with the sound mix. Textures that had been lovingly created in the studio were sucked into a white noise of volume and Polly's voice tended to be very low in the mix (there were repeated calls for her to up the vocals).

I think the most significant issue though was simply that she hadn't written the material. Performing someone else's music must present a notable filter to the manner of her performance, which, as we saw in the two most expressionist numbers, tends to be be spontaneous, without the fetters of forethought.

In one of the many interviews prior to this tour she was asked about her 'barking' in Pig Will Not. She countered by questioning whether she was 'barking' at all, claiming that it was just some sort of unpremeditated exclamation. In concert I get the point: barking might be a convenient way to describe what she was doing but she'd clearly not thought 'I need to make the sound a dog makes here'.

All in all then a disappointment although I felt that this would be something of an anomaly in her long history of live shows. At the end she thanked us ll for coming and 'for being quiet and actually listening to the music'. Well, sorry Polly, but I was quiet because I was a little bored.

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