These days it’s rare to see PJ Harvey cross the Atlantic for more than the odd show or two. Last year the British singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist embarked on a run of dates across Europe, but played just four U.S. shows. After starting the year in Australia touring behind her Grammy-nominated album The Hope Six Demolition Project, Harvey announced that she would be returning to North America this spring for her most extensive run of dates in a decade. So it was with unabashed excitement and wild anticipation that fans packed The National in Richmond VA on a Saturday night for her sold-out performance.
With no opening act, the evening focused solely on Harvey and her nine-piece band. As the lights dropped it was obvious that fans were in for a theatrical performance, as drummers Kennick Rowe and Jean-Marc Butty led a marching band processional across the stage. Once each band member made their way to their places, the group kicked off the set with “Chain of Keys” from The Hope Six Demolition Project. Harvey started the show toward the back of the stage as part of a horn section line before working her way, with saxophone in hand, to her microphone at the front of the stage. For most of the show, Polly Jean delivered her aching and powerful vocals with her sax held high in one hand as the other gestured to the crowd providing emphasis to her lyrics. As anticipated, much of the set centered around material from The Hope Six Demolition Project, as the band continued with “The Ministry of Defence,” “The Community of Hope,” and “The Orange Monkey.” From there, they would reach back to previous album Let England Shake for an extended run of songs that included “A Line in the Sand,” “Let England Shake,” and “The Words That Maketh Murder,” which included an audience clap-along. The rest of the set consisted a more eclectic mix of new songs and some older favorites. The arrangements were powerfully orchestrated and tightly delivered by a backing band of solid performers the included Mick Harvey, James Johnston, Terry Edwards, and long-time collaborator John Parish.
The evening was focused on the songs and their presentation. The lighting was not overly bold and when mixed with swirls of smoke, it created a moody backdrop. Banter was virtually non-existent and limited to Harvey introducing the band and thanking the audience toward the end of the show. The crowd responded enthusiastically throughout and erupted as Polly Jean and her band ran through a trio of old favorites, “50ft Queenie,” “Down by the Water,” and “To Bring You My Love,” before closing out the set with new song “River Anacostia.” They returned for a two song encore of “Guilty,” followed by “Is This Desire?”
In an age of cash-grab reunions and greatest hits tours, PJ Harvey stayed true to her artistic vision and delivered an artful yet precisely constructed performance that was worth the wait.
Photos of PJ Harvey @ The National – April 22nd 2017