PJ Harvey and John Parish
In the 17 years since her astonishing debut, Britain's PJ Harvey has treated her devout audience to an unsurpassed emotional rollercoaster ride. With each of her records (yes, I will always call them that) she's striven to challenge her own perceptions of music as a form of self-expression, and her catalogue is all the richer for it - indeed, no two PJ Harvey albums are alike. And yet they all hit hard, whether she's growling and hissing out the narratives balls-to-the-wall style, showcased magnificently on her first two releases, or floating by on a sonic heroin cloud of piano-based ballads like those delivered with 2007's startlingly sparse White Chalk.
When she pulled into Live Nation's new House of Blues on Saturday night it was to focus on material from her two collaborative song cycles with guitarist John Parish. Even though longtime fans who've waited patiently for Harvey to return to the States (it's been a few years) may have been disappointed that the format excluded universal favorites like Who the Fuck and Down by the Water, she attacked the set with zeal, relishing the opportunity to highlight lesser known artifacts from 1996's Dance Hall at Louise Point and the brand new A Woman, A Man, Walked By. The show was utterly transfixing.
Underneath all of her delightfully idiosyncratic trappings, Harvey's music is stewed in garagey blues, and with Parish at her side it's an even swampier concoction. With an able (but cautious) three-piece-band behind them, Harvey and Parish tore into Black Hearted Love, also the new disc's opener and perhaps the most accessible track the pair has committed to tape, building to the protagonist's impassioned plea to take her lover to, "a place I know" - one can only imagine where that might be (down, down, down). Parish's clang and Harvey's spooked, reverb-heavy vocal provided just the right balance of menace and mystery to the tale's inherently dark descent, thus beginning an eighty-minute dissertation on obsessive love, loss and the ensuing pile-up of casualties.
If Harvey held anything back, it made the far-flung numbers that much more of a satisfying exorcism. Barefoot with red lipstick in a silky black dress that hung from her tiny frame like her most comfortable nightgown, unchecked curls cascading down her face, she gleamed with a twisted joy as she inhabited her characters, taking the piss out of a 'woman-man' comprised of 'lily-livered chicken liver parts' in the new disc's harrowing title track and rhythmically barking for emphasis during Pig Will Not. The contrast worked both ways - the weariness with which she begged to be, "...sent home, damaged" in The Soldier struck like a velvet hammer ala winsome strains of melodica and staccato ukulele. But the somber moments were few and far between: no matter how macabre the stories may sometimes have been, Harvey skipped, galloped and pranced across the stage as if an anvil had been lifted from her frail shoulders... and the liberation was truly cathartic.
Throughout, former Beefheart sideman Eric Drew Feldman added backing vocals and flourishes of organ while drummer Jean-Marc Butty provided an understated anchor to Parish and second guitarist Giovanni Ferrario's depraved call and response. It would appear that in Parish, Harvey has met her creative match, and the chemistry between the two sizzles without having to be stirred. As the gaggle of over-enthused lesbians behind me summed it up:
"What the hell are we supposed to do after a show like this?"
"Go home and fucking masturbate."
Right on, Ladies - sounds like a plan.