PJ Harvey and her nine-piece band lead an evocative performance for Sydney Festival

The irony of gentrification was exposed and wryly chastised on last year’s Grammy-nominated instant-classic The Hope Six Demolition Project, the ninth studio album from the inimitable PJ Harvey and the reason for her current Australian tour. The 11-track project was, and is, a poetic flare straight to the core of misguided bureaucracy, drawing the ire of politicians and inspiring fans, both those were already incensed and those who may have been sitting on their hands.

This was no surprise of course; through her prolific career Polly Jean Harvey has always been an unwavering and fierce force in rock music, a sharp and witty songwriter who has sparked movements, started careers and, above all else, been one of the most consistent and thoughtful musicians of our time – whether she’s tackling herself or issues much larger than any one person.

Witnessing her live was not only a sharp reminder of this undeniable talent – especially when backed by a nine-deep bevy of individually accomplished musicians – but a generous surge to anyone who may have forgotten just how powerful and important live music can be.

Taking to the lofty new stage at ICC Sydney Theatre, Harvey began as the middle in a snaking procession that saw the entire band filter out from backstage. Faint religious chanting threaded into military style drumming as the marching band took position. Harvey stuck out with a golden saxophone in hand, wielded as it were a weapon that would come into play shortly after she stamped her intentions onto the crowd with “Chain of Keys”, a meticulous opener that highlighted just how tight this band has become.

The ever-loyal John Parish stood close to Harvey, as did Bad Seed Mick Harvey, Italian guitarist Alessandro Stefano and several others from the supergroup, often shaping into a male choir to smooth down the rough edges of these songs while Harvey took on a great deal of forms and vocal styles to best translate them for the set. She was at times calm and composed, at others frenzied and commanding, though always mesmerising in the way she would gesticulate each lyric with palpable conviction.

Whether it were the pop sensibility of “The Community of Hope”, sarcastically crafting an upbeat melody around gritty lyrics of postured chaos, or the unstoppable fury of “The Words that Maketh Murder”, Harvey led her all-male band through a set that was both graceful and defiant. A thick slab of brutal architecture loomed behind the band so that we wouldn’t lose sight of where the majority of these songs were aimed.

Squeaky fan favourite “Let England Shake” was a stunning highlight, but the building intensity of PJ’s most recent material would go on to steal the show, reaching it’s peak both sonically and thematically with “The Wheel”. Was it too stark? Perhaps in content, but rarely in tone. Even as PJ slipped into the 90s with the rambunctious “50ft Queenie” and the sinister “Down by the Water”, there was still that charming soulful tinge to her vocals that was like a flame unmoved by the gale of instruments blaring around it. Though it was at this point where the only disappointment would lie, the unnerving atmosphere of “Down by the Water” flattened as the song’s demonic riff was muted, leaving the drama towards the end as a frantic violin scored Harvey’s famous “little fish, big fish” refrain.

The deconstructed blues of “To Bring You My Love” proved to be the most valuable of the older cuts, stripped and laid bare for Harvey to really let that voice soar, launching off that simple riff and really testing the venue’s solid acoustics. Having this soulful number towards the end seemed intentional as well, as Harvey moved towards the soothing idyllic sound of “River Anacostia”, a song which would bring back the importance of the band’s choir whom gently brought things to a close before the inevitable two-song encore.

Set List
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
When Under 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

Highway ’61 Revisited (Bob Dylan Cover)
Is This Desire?

PJ Harvey will end her current Australian tour at Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane, on January 27 and 28. More information can be found HERE

Photo by Prudence Upton.