It’s now 25 years since PJ Harvey released her debut album, Dry. It was clear that she was one of a kind then – and tonight’s performance demonstrated that they broke the mould thereafter.
Rock acts playing during the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe – now celebrating its seventieth year – are not new, but the calibre of both performers and performance indicate just how high the standard is here. PJ Harvey and the nine members of her band come on not to backing tracks, strutting like peacocks, but process in a line, beating drums. They open with an extended version of ‘Chain Of Keys’ taken from last year’s The Hope Six Memorial Project. When Harvey first appeared she was usually to be seen wielding a guitar, now she adds saxophone to the proceedings, often holding it aloft when not playing. The songs sounded pretty impressive on record, but the live show really takes it to a whole new level. A brick wall slowly rises during ‘Chain’ symbolic of the notions of division and war that inform the record.
Even the writing and making of the album was – yet again – sign that Polly Jean is no ordinary artist. Both this album, and its predecessor, Let England Shake, are intensely personal and political records – but never preaching. The Hope Six Demolition Project is an account of her travels to experience post-war Afghanistan and Kosovo, and the clearance of housing in Washington DC, and then recorded at Somerset House in London, where the public could watch.
And here it’s all delivered in a way that adds to an impressive visual display. Not by using video or photography, but rather by the way that the band play together on stage. In many ways it feels like watching a play, as they perform to the audience but without descending to cliche.The band includes longterm collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parrish, as well as the Bad Seeds’ James Johnston, legendary brass player Terry Edwards and Queen Of The Stone Age’s Alain Johannes.
As well as album highlights like the record opener ‘The Community Of Hope’ and ‘The Wheel’ there is a carefully selected use of older songs from her back catalogue. Flowing so well together, it’s tempting to marvel and wonder at how carefully planned this whole show is. So as well as songs from her previous record like ‘Let England Shake,’ ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and ‘The Glorious Land‘ there are also outings for earlier singles like ‘Down By The Water’ and ’50 Ft Queenie.’ It’s incredible to think as she demonstrates her gothic blues that these songs made the top forty, and how fresh they still feel.
The effect on the audience is worth noting, too. My fiancée clutches my arm at one point in astonishment: ‘hardly anyone’s got a phone out!’ she says in wonder. There’s several kids in the audience, who may well be having their first experience of live music but also people considerably older than your forty year old scribe. At the end of the set, the band receivbe a standing ovation. The only concession to being a rock gig is the introduction of the band members – done with warmth, but no need to descend into cliche.
Even the encores are special. It’s her cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ which she first visited on her second album, 1993’s Rid Of Me – and finally, the magical finale of the hypnotic ‘River Anacostia’ which becomes like a mantra as we file out in awe.