The Roundhouse, London
“Stop elbowing me, it's a gig man”; No, this isn’t a cut from PJ Harvey's latest, I Inside The Old Year Dying. Although, If one does face the unfortunate opportunity to sample it, they’ll likely tell you, it does feel like a sharp elbow being shoved repeatedly into your side at unexpected intervals. No, instead this a statement from an overzealous fan, throwing their body against us repeatedly as we take notes at night two of two sold out consecutive dates at Camden Town’s Roundhouse. Earlier in the day, seeing Alison (Mosshart of The Kills) post on her venture to night one of PJ’s gig from a balcony vantage makes for a compelling argument, especially after our incident, that sitting both at height, and far away from crowds at stage level, is the way. Our exposure to the whims of fanatics, we must admit, fanatical accusations and generally gross behaviour (profuse vomiting) throughout the gig would paint our experience of the evening, ah hindsight!
Catching the snippet from Alison’s feed reminded us that we’d be missing out on the opportunity to review England’s favourite daughter and rock-sician. We mused on opportunities lost, this being the latest, over a pint of Guiness at The Pineapple when our phone buzzed. In the final hours of the evening, there’d been a few sudden openings on the list and we were flattered to be called upon to give our two bits worth. Tipping the last of the black stuff back, we made our way to the venue. Once inside, we shimmied up to stage right, where we’d settle in for the performance. Without a support act, PJ took to stage quietly and quiet promptly.
In 2016, we caught PJ at Barcelona’s Primavera, sandwiched in between the likes of LCD Soundsystem (coming out of retirement), Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Tame Impala. Huge names, to be sure, but this slight figure at a stage so far away from us, had cut into the night with her gleaming saxophone making a HUGE impression on the crowd. This evening, we were ready for round two, but unfortunately Harvey wouldn’t Let England Shake. Birds chirping, sounds of the forest, and unseen children’s laughter fell upon us instead. What in sweet fuck was the meaning of this shit?
Over the next hour, a pastiche of absurdity, and not in that groovy trippy Michel Gondry or Yorgos Lanthimos sort of way, came at us from the stage. We were thoroughly unprepared for this. Before recounting the evening’s events, at only just the mention of Harvey, close friends of ours would mention they’re huge fans but her latest was not for them. The words “confusing” and “she’s gone soft” were descriptors of PJ’s latest works. On stage, Harvey cut angular poses like an ancient discus thrower gearing up for the toss. She hadn’t gone soft, in the literal sense, with each pose (imagine interpretive dance) lean muscle and tightened ligaments shone taut, in a sleeveless number sheer from the waist down, at attention and we could say with conviction her vocals were on equal par. Four songs in though, she still hadn’t picked up an instrument. The band meanwhile, in what looked like reworked pastel hessian sacks in lieu of clothing, did all the heavy lifting with a mix of strings, percussion, keys and theramin. Presumably, all these songs were off the new album and went down like a lead balloon.
The shift was palpable when she picked up an acoustic guitar three quarters into the first half of her performance. Looking back, we thought, did we have a right to feel this way? I guess the answer is we don’t know. In our collective defence however, it was with a collective relief seeing the instrument handed over by one of many roadies into Polly’s welcoming hands. We did in the end, come to watch a gig, not a pantomime of physical dance. I guess it just wasn't on the agenda and how could it be? It was tough to digest, like rock soup, and equally as unexpected and unpalpable. At about the 45-minute mark, Harvey walks off stage as her musicians form up like a maimed group of American Civil War soldiers in a marching band, a confusing spectacle to be sure. Anyone that’s seen PJ knows she has a flair for pageantry so we stuck out her return to stage purely out of curiosity. Our curiosity satisfied, but not our imagination, we see Harvey return appearing exactly as she’d left during the first half. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
The lights, now dimmed, draped the Roundhouse in darkness as spotlights beamed down harsh angles at a solitary figure. With a Gibson Firebird, ‘Man-Size’ rings out into the darkness. The shift in the audience is palpable in as much as their relief, Harvey was digging into her back catalogue. Sticking it out had proved worthwhile after all . We were also treated to ‘Down By The Water’, a staple, being sung with unfamiliar playfulness ‘big fish/ little fish/ shhhhhhwiming in the water’, flirty, while maintaining its edge. In our opinion, when she sang her finale, ‘White Chalk’ and played the zither as her voice howled longingly into the darkness, it was the best performance of the night. ‘C’mon Billy’ before it also shone bright, Polly killing it on the harmonica.
The set was a journey through Harvey’s musical, and vocal, range and of accomplishment throughout her career. Not all journeys are what one signs up for though. The whole production felt like someone had spent a lot of money to make it look like they hadn’t spent any. It felt like an afterwork yuppie theatre group were dipping their dramatic toes into the world of music, a weird mashup by any standard. Generally, the feeling was one of tedium and general exhaustion. It felt to us like the act of 2016, not that long ago by any standards, had gone into retirement but had only recently been reanimated to fulfill some contractual obligation, artificial.