Edinburgh International Festival 2017: PJ Harvey @Playhouse 08/08
What the Edinburgh International website says:
Two International Festival concerts from PJ Harvey, who returns to Edinburgh with her full nine-piece band, performing tracks from the critically acclaimed album The Hope Six Demolition Project, as well as material from her catalogue.
PJ Harvey is the only artist to have won the Mercury Prize twice. Her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, was inspired by her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, DC. The album reached No.1 in the UK charts and received a Grammy nomination for best alternative music album.
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The Community of PJ Harvey
It’s the second time I’ve caught PJ Harvey with her nine-piece backing band on her current extended tour. During the first occasion when I saw them at the Glasgow SECC I was overwhelmed by the spectacular musical display. While my revisit to her show (last night at the Edinburgh Playhouse) didn’t quite take my breath away to the same extent, it was more due to the fact that I knew exactly what to expect this time around, rather than due to any fall-off in quality. The set list seemed to have some slight variations (for instance the superbly sparse and mantra-like “Guilty” was absent) but not many.
The musical ensemble, composed of PJ on vocals and sax plus nine backing multi-instrumentalists, may be expansive and the compositions ambitious. However, everything is so leanly and tightly focussed that there’s barely a moment for the audience to catch a breath. Considering the amount of touring they have done of late (and that this is the second night running at the Playhouse) the immaculate performance is remarkable.
Intense focus on the music
The bulk of the set list is taken from her most recent albums The Hope Six Demolition Project (obviously) and Let England Shake, and heavily emphasises the experimental, political style of the two in spectacular fashion. The band turns them into something so much wider than mere alternative pop, but at the same time never falls into fanciful self-indulgence. While there is a little showiness in PJ’s black feathery outfit and theatrical arm gestures, she only does so as a welcome anomaly in stark contrast to the coiled intensity of the music, grim themes and spartan concrete wall-style back projection. As such, she functions as a charismatically human hook to lure the viewer into her stark and sombre world.
Later on some tracks from her earlier albums were given the benefit of this larger musical backing. However, it would have been nice if there were more cuts from her rockier entries; her iconic hit Fifty Foot Queenie gains some surprising extra energy from the addition of wind instrumentation, so it’s a pity more tracks from Rid Of Me and her debut album Dry didn’t make it. Nonetheless, that’s only a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.
Appropriately, PJ lets the art do the talking rather than herself, only speaking between songs twice: once to introduce the band members and once to thank the audience. Again, less is more in PJ’s presentation of her ambitious musical experience. I’m glad I saw her again.