On Tuesday night, PJ Harvey returned to Seattle and played a nearly sold-out Moore Theater. Those fans expecting to see a variety of the many faces and voices of PJ Harvey -- the raw punk anger of Rid of Me, the red seduction of To Bring You My Love, the New York strut of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, the somber balladry of Is This Desire?, the ghostly fairytale minimalism of White Chalk -- would have to wait. This tour is all about her work specifically with long-time collaborator John Parish and supports their second album together, A Woman A Man Walked By. It would be only those songs written in collaboration between Harvey and Parish -- she the lyrics and he the music -- besides one song in the encore entirely Parish’s own -- for the night’s set and there’d be no deviating from the mood. We were told at outset to expect nothing else.
And the mood of the night was plain to see as the band took the stage, each dressed in black and dark gray, the men in suits and brimmed hats (except drummer Jean-Marc Butty in a tan suit and with purple hair). Harvey arrived barefoot in a shifting black satin gown shaped something between a nightie and a peasant dress, appearing as if she’d awoken late at night, stepped out of her cottage in some Burtonesque country landscape, and found this foursome of dapper men performing privately in a field far from town. Yes, it was all very theatrical, even on the minimally designed stage, but if anyone can get away with this without it seeming like a contrivedly melodramatic high school production, it would be PJ Harvey. Her movements as the band played were equally apropos, as she drifted across stage occasionally as if in search of her lost lover, or waived her hands about her head in hysteria, grief, or anger (or a combination thereof); as in her songs, she seemed both spellbound and bewitching.
Of course, the music itself was the highlight, and for what could have been a one-dirgelike-note performance, the set was surprisingly dynamic, partly because the songs on the pair’s latest album are themselves more varied but also because much care was put into the arrangement (which, by the way, doesn’t seem to change at all from one show to the next). The slow lament of “The Soldier,” for instance, was followed immediately by the frantically wailing “Taut,” and many of the newer songs themselves are more internally diverse, so it was difficult to feel bored, even as you were fruitlessly hoping for a “50-foot Queenie,” a “Sheela-Na-Gig,” or even a “A Perfect Day, Elise.” And whether it be a groan, a scream, or a sustained falsetto, Harvey’s voice was impeccable. She touched no instruments, besides the occasional shaker, preferring to leave it all to Parish and his more than adequate crew: Butty on drums, Giovanni Ferrario on guitar, and Eric Drew Feldman on bass and keys, each accomplished and renowned well beyond their association with Harvey. When one loud fan yelled for PJ to “play guitar,” no one near me at least clapped in support. With this caliber a band, why would she?
The show finished after the howling “Pig Will Not” with a two-song encore consisting of John Parish’s own song “False Fire” and “April,” the centerpiece of A Woman, a song I tend to gloss over when listening to the album, but it was my reaction with its performance that reflected my experience with the show overall: during the first few minutes as she covered her face and flattened her tone while straining her voice through repetitive verses like an elderly woman, I was ready to give in, to say I just wish she’d play something older, and cooler, and, well, different, but then she opened her hands and voice and held the most powerful and beautiful melody I think I’ve ever heard sung live. It was more than enough. She needn’t sing anything else, and fortunately it was the last song she’d sing of the night.