Polly Jean Harvey stepped onto the stage slowly, gracefully, and barefoot, donning a silk dress that billowed in the draft coming through the large doors of the Beacon Theatre Tuesday night (June 9). Despite fans screaming out her name and offering to take her to dinner the next evening, she remained queerly calm and poised.
John Parish and the rest of her band followed. There was no introduction at first, but once Harvey gripped the microphone, bursts of dark and beautiful melodies suddenly filled the theater and everyone in the audience went quiet, as if mesmerized. The band opened with the single “Black Hearted Love” from “A Woman a Man Walked By,” Harvey’s new album released in March. The song is a refreshing departure from her standards, and combined with her sensual vocal style and the twang of the guitar it was the perfect opener. When the British singer crooned, “And I volunteer my soul for murder,” her voice sounded as smooth and deep as it does on the record.
The next song, “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen,” also from Harvey’s new album, was a nice contrast to the first. Its discordant melodies and disturbing lyrics were paired with the singer’s jarring body motions and a sense of urgency in her voice; she even laughed nervously at the end of it. It was only after this song that she finally spoke. In a clear but soft voice, Harvey thanked the crowd for their applause, then introduced her band and announced that she and the taciturn Parish would perform a selection of songs from the two albums they recorded together: 2009’s “A Woman” and “Dance Hall at Louse Point,” released in 1996.
“And the next song,” Harvey said, “Will be from our earlier album. It’s called ‘Rope Bridge Crossing.’” The crowd cheered enthusiastically for this particular choice and her overall song selection, which offered a prime look at how PJ Harvey’s music has changed over the past 18 years. Harvey performed her raw, grungy breakthrough single “Dress,” and later ventured into songs from her 2007 piano-driven album “White Chalk” and 1995’s “To Bring You My Love,” where she explored strings and synths.
The Parish collaborations mix Harvey’s grittier early period with her inclination towards folk music and haunting melodies. Aside from “Black Hearted Love,” most of the songs consist of few lyrics repeated and sung in different tones and are about serious life moments, not necessarily drawn from the artist’s own experiences. During “Taut,” she screamed, “Save me, Jesus!” and kneeled on the stage floor as if in prayer, inspiring some in the audience to get up and thrash their bodies.
Harvey grasped the crowd’s attention and held onto it from the first minute to the last song, after which she compelled everyone to cheer for an encore. Returning to the stage to perform “April,” she belted, “I dream, I dream” and cackled eerily, almost like an elderly woman. Her voice was equally disturbing and entrancing, enveloping the entire venue and leaving the audience mystified. While Harvey no longer dons a gaudy catsuit, wig, and smeared vampy make-up as she used to in the ‘90s, she still has her audience hooked.
“Black Hearted Love”
“Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen”
“Rope Bridge Crossing”
“Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool”
“Un Cercle Autour Du Soleil”
“A Woman A Man Walked By”
“Cracks in the Canvas”
“Pig Will Not”