REVIEW: PJ Harvey Shines by Blending In [House of Blues 4/17]

At seven o’clock on Marathon Monday, I thought Lansdowne St. would be cleared out by then, but after dodging many a stumbling and drunk Bostonian, I made it to the House of Blues. Tonight was the night; after countless years of holding PJ Harvey’s albums close, I was finally seeing her live.

PJ Harvey’s career spans decades, several albums, evolving genres, and all one could think was humanly possible. Polly Jean Harvey and her stellar band were the sole performers of the evening. Waiting for the show to start I wondered, “would she play my favorite songs?” Others seeing her for the first time were probably also thinking the same, but if that happened, we would be here all night and quite possibly through tomorrow.

The band entered solely with drums in a small marching band formation as a backdrop that doubled as an acoustic panel slowly climbed upwards behind them. Holding a saxophone, Harvey marched right with her band, blending in save for her elaborate blue outfit. She only popped out of formation when singing out her appropriate croons. It was a humbling performance routine that remained throughout the evening. Even the spotlight on her was faint at best. She showed off some interpretative dance moves with her hands but nothing outlandish. She blended in so well with her band even though we all know she’s the conductor running the show.

Harvey and her band jumped right into a few tracks from their newest album The Hope Six Demolition Project. Many of these songs were written on a trip Harvey took to Washington D.C. They serve as a criticism of gentrification and the demolition of public housing in the city. Between these songs and those off of 2011’s Let England Shake, most of PJ Harvey’s set consisted of political tunes criticizing both the U.S. and England. It felt very timely in Trump’s America and post-Brexit U.K. It’s hard not to feel heavy hearted listening to the band play these songs so close to the issues we feel at home. In “The Words That Maketh Murder” (off Let England Shake) she sings of soldiers being blown up and shot and asks, “what if I take my problem to the United Nations?” Whether a metaphor or not, it’s relatable given the turmoil in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations. We look to a higher power for answers whether they want to help or not. PJ Harvey remains relevant decades later: evolving her sound and staying in touch with the places she cares about most. The audience watched onward in a captivated trance with nowhere to place their attention but to the immaculate display of musicianship happening on the stage before them.

Later in the set, the audience seemed to wake up as the band erupted into the classic banger, “50ft Queenie.” I think I saw the semblance of a mosh pit and/or a group of heavy synchronized headbangers, surprising since the crowd was an average of 20 years my senior. After this song, which was just over an hour into the set, Harvey says thank you to the audience and introduces the rest of her band. The loudest cheers belonged to her longtime collaborator John Parish and prolific multi-instrumentalist Alain Johannes. A few songs later, the band brings it full circle by breaking down just into drums as the backdrop slips back down off stage. They bow, walk off, and come back for a two-song encore after load cheers and desperate pleas from the audience. Our journey across the U.S. and England is over, and we return to the marathon and Red Sox game stragglers, beaming brighter than the faint spotlight on PJ Harvey and the lights over Fenway Park behind us.

Setlist:

Chain of Keys
The Ministry of Defence
The Community of Hope
The Orange Monkey
A Line in the Sand
Let England Shake
The Words that Maketh Murder
The Glorious Land
Medicinals
When Water Ether
Dollar, Dollar
The Devil
The Wheel
The Ministry of Social Affairs
50ft Queenie
Down by the Water
To Bring You My Love
River Anacostia
Guilty
Is This Desire?

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