PJ Harvey @ The Troxy, London, 27.02.11
On a drab arterial road in Shadwell, in an art deco theatre, we wait in silence. There’s no support act or music to soothe us, just the sound of muttered conversation.
When she appears in white, clutching an auto-harp, with raven hair cascading, the clues are there: this show is going to be quiet, thoughtful. Gone are the tight pants, T-shirts and glittery eye shadow. This isn’t one of those shows. It could be, but she’s decided it’s not going to be.
She doesn’t do patter. Artistic shyness masked as arrogance is just that – shyness – but it’s also pride and self-possession. Pride in the quality of songs on her new album and solemnity of the theme.
Opening with the strange, Cochran-inspired ‘Let England Shake’, she gently eases into a robust ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, but the tightness of the sound and the elegance and beauty of the backing vocals is buried.
She stands resolutely right of stage throughout, and there’s very little movement or theatre. As ‘The Glorious Land’ finishes, someone – unnerved, or just plain irritated – shouts out: “Say something'”! “Hello” says John Parish, flatly, providing the only slice of humour from the show.
But she does keep us in mind, having good taste in her own back catalogue. An earthy ‘C’mon Billy’ and a gutsy ‘Big Exit’ remind us of where she has flowered from, to find herself where she is tonight. She’s somewhere new, but returning slightly – if not for her own sake, then as a concession for us.
Emerging glazed with hope from the trenches tonight is her voice. There’s an amazing intensity to ‘On Battleship Hill’, a song swamped on the album, but it’s gutturally, searingly performed here with a vocal range to inspire awe – it’s otherworldly. This song alone is the performance of the night – and possibly the year.
England didn’t shake, so much as primal howl and gently whisper, but that was fine, because it suits her just enough.