At a time when some female pop stars don’t even bother putting on any underwear when they’re out and about, it seems like a radical act for Polly Jean Harvey to walk out on stage smothered in a virginal Victorian dress that covers nearly every last inch of flesh.
This is, of course, how she appears on the cover of her new album, “White Chalk.” But who among the 1,000-strong crowd in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre was expecting her to recreate the look from the photo shoot? Indeed, Harvey performed the entire concert in this retro white garb, looking like a character from that scary scrapbook-of-the-dead in the horror film “The Others.”
But when she sang, all the cobwebs were blown away. This prim, chaste wallflower strapped on her electric guitar, dug her black high heel onto the effects pedal and tore into the erotically charged blues/rock of “To Bring You My Love,” the title track of her 1995 opus. It was an incongruous but dramatic opening.
But Polly is no one-trick pony, and the range of styles and instruments at her disposal continues to grow exponentially. Harvey effortlessly switched from amped-up swampy vixen to piano-playing mournful siren when it came to performing the new material from “White Chalk.” The resonance of the notes from the upright piano filled the room in tandem with Harvey’s unmistakable (and unforgettable) voice.
That she managed to keep the audience so rapt without the aid of a backing band spoke volumes about both the songs and the extent to which she possesses that intangible quality — presence. But no sooner had she weaved a spell on the ivories, than she was flitting to the miniature keyboard and activating the drum samples that filled out “Angelene” and “My Beautiful Leah,” from her experimental album “Is This Desire?”
By now, Harvey was clearly enjoying herself, talking freely to the audience, who in turn kept her amused with their humorous heckles. Mixing it up again, Harvey strapped on an autoharp for the latter portion of the set, which included a minimalist and quite creepy reading of murder ballad “Down by the Water” and a riveting “Grow Grow Grow” from the new album.
Later, she even took requests from the audience, and had to be prompted with the opening lines of “Sheela-na-Gig.” The finale, “The Desperate Kingdom of Love,” was accompanied by only a 12-string acoustic guitar, but still earned a standing ovation.
She eventually returned for one last encore, closing with “Horses in My Dreams,” one of only two songs from her prize-winning album “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea” to feature in the set.
This was a night when we saw how much PJ Harvey has matured: as a songwriter, as a multi-instrumentalist and as a performer at ease with herself and her audience.
Here is PJ Harvey’s set list:
“To Bring You My Love”
“Send His Love to Me”
“When Under Ether”
“My Beautiful Leah”
“Down by the Water”
“Grow Grow Grow”
“The Desperate Kingdom of Love”
“Horses in My Dreams”