Mixing Introspection with Rebel Silence: PJ Harvey at the Warfield, San Francisco

April 15, 2011

PJ Harvey came on stage half an hour late wearing black boots and a long white dress bound externally with a white corset. Her black hair was rigged to look like two long crow’s wings, or the tails of black Labrador retrievers, flying behind her head—a presentation evoking the bride and the burial shroud, Edgar Allen Poe and a girlish punk adventurer, with a small nod to Star Trek. In contrast, her band seemed like English folkie gentlemen, barely moving during the concert, playing with the restrained formality, as my friend Thad observed, of a classical quartet. A long way from “Meet Ze Monsta”—that driving, sexual, tribal strut from To Bring You My Love.

Harvey has not compromised her innovative, raw, under-produced sound, but some of the energy of the concert was drained by recorded elements. It would have been great if someone had actually played the bugle in “The Glorious Land” or if a choir of Iraqi women had sung in ”England.” No doubt there was no budget for that kind of production, but in a world where Charlie Sheen gets to spew his shallow, narcissistic, misogynistic babble to large audiences, there should have been.

Harvey seemed ambivalent about being on stage. She spoke to the audience solely to thank them before her encore, and it was only during the encore that she introduced her band. The audience was enthusiastic, respectful, adoring.

What I love about Harvey is her boldness. I love her concentrated energy, the way her tendons and muscles are taut, hyper-defined attachments to her bones, like springs that may uncoil in surprising, dangerous ways. I love the honesty of her voice and the way she dropkicks the creeping vines of a celebrity persona. I love her face-first journey into mystery, creativity. I love that she wrote Let England Shake, an album about war—guns and men and death—straight up. I love her alt music addition to our civilization’s understanding of war in our species. She has my complete attention.