PJ lets Adelaide (and the Thebarton Theatre) shake

pj harvey alison leaPJ Harvey makes her point. Adelaide laps it up. Alison Lea photo

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Poor old Thebby.

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Poor old Thebby, and its heritage-listed planks.

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After posting on Facebook that bits of poor old Thebby’s ceiling were falling around them, I’m fairly sure Sunn 0)))) had to turn down the volume a few months ago. Not that we noticed.

pj adelaide wide alison lea

PJ Harvey
Thebarton Theatre, Torrensville, Adelaide
Thursday, January 19, 2017
Alison Lea photos

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Poor old Thebby.

It’s January, it’s 95 percent humidity, in Adelaide, and everyone has just come off Christmas and has bugger-all dosh left because they’re saving for the Adelaide Festival and the (Comedy) Fringe in a few weeks. It’s been over 40 degrees Celsius here, and there’s sport of some sort at home on the telly, where the air con is.

Poor old Thebby has four rather ineffective fans at the back of the sit-down section. A few tiddly vents. Heritage-listing, I suspect, prevents actual air-conditioning. The place is notoriously stifling in summer.

When we arrive, a tad early, for quite some time it seems like no-one’s turning up. The gig is still advertised as not being sold-out.

But then… Adelaide does that thing that drives promoters mad… They roll up in their hundreds, expecting that tickets will still be available.

And lo, the masses do come, heaving in cheery, boozy clots from god knows where. Home made fans flap away. And then, as time comes for She to arrive on-stage…

...and the deep, pounding sound comes in impatient waves from the back, probably started by troublemakers like Hermann Lauss or Michael Graesel.

So She was a few minutes late coming out. Maybe this was the Adelaide equivalent of jiggling the car keys at the foot of the stairs. "Aren’t you ready yet, dear..?"

The stamping dies away and then, the lights flick out and, after the cheering dies down, we hear snare drums and a big tom drum… like an old military marching band. Slowly, nine men walk out in single file, three of them battering snares like it’s the English Civil War.

No, wait, She is among them, clutching a sax and wearing a sort of outlandish dark ostrich feather shawl… the place erupts…
… and continues to erupt at intervals, after every song, and, hang on.

What’s it like? Not a rock’n’roll gig. There’s far more theatricality to the performance, the presentation (like a musical but without actual dialogue), and the music than any ‘gig’. The music… celtic. Kind of. Also, Brecht und Weillian, kind of. Not always on the beat, sometimes a tad off. Makes you focus on the lyric, on the performance.

Hell, it’s a nine-piece band, and almost everyone shifts their jobs at least twice. There’s a lot of motion and movement on stage. As the notes of each song die, Polly moves back toward the back, back into the protective fold of her nine men. She’s huge, but that’s not a physical thing. She’s in control. Powerful. And fragile, brittle, strong … this whole thing, this performance… such a broad palette. Who else, as a friend commented, could sing the word "shithole"’ in such a sweet, sensitive way?

The huge backdrop which rises behind them is impressive, and clever. All it is is a big square thing with smaller squares jutting out, a little like a squarish, grey comb in a hive… lit occasionally from above, or below, or the sides, the backdrop moves subtly, shifts and always acts as a form of emphasis for the performers. It’s a fine piece of under-stated showmanship - but as I say, this wasn’t a rock gig. It was much more than that.

I mean, gone is that narcissistic "look at me" nonsense. Polly tells, acts out her parables (a little like Alice Cooper without the props) of failure and evil and stupidity and love and hope… The songs flow like silk down a thigh, brilliant, sharp dominoes toppling upon us one after another, PJ striking poses as she sings, reaching all around the theatre with power and grace, showing a remarkable range, hitting the notes she wants to hit with intelligence, precision and carefully crafted emotion…

and the lights go out…

…Then she comes back, sometimes in the sharp light, sometimes to the side… Polly Jean is not so much the star of the show as one of the band herself, emphasised by the way in which she acknowledges the crowd in her performance rather than by direct address (there is no, ‘Hello Adelaide’ here - it’s not necessary). She’s utterly in the moment, one with the rhythms … As each song ends, she holds her strength where she last left her body as the lights fade to black, and she turns and heads off into the warmth and safety of the men, vanishing among them almost like a child into blankets.

Why a child..? Partly, her voice occasionally reminds me of a child, partly because for all the power emanating from the stage, it’s not a brawny, muscular thing: it’s the power highlighted by the expressions of her vulnerability, fragility; of surviving despite the tempests.

Everything was so tight, so seamless; sometimes the band slammed forward, sometimes they rocked, like a mother’s hand the cradle… and others. Well. Actually most of the time they did something very, very few ‘rock’ bands can do, ever.

pj portrait alison lea

Ladies and gentlemen, PJ Harvey’s band didn’t just rock, they swung.

And you should know the old phrase, ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’…

That said, there are always musicians who shine. Personally I think the axis around which everything turned was the two drummers (or, if you prefer, the drummer and the percussionist); their rhythms were so firm, strong and involving that the rest followed naturally. The piano and organ (or whatever the silvery thing was) added distinctive dimensions.

And the horns… Sometimes there were four of the things going. Sometimes one. Twice the mighty, dapper (if not mighty dapper) Terry Edwards strode forward and gave his all for us. Spellbinding is the word. Yeah, not everyone really wants to go and see someone play a set of Bird. But in context of a song, a piece with a bit of shriek, a bit of sturm und drang, and layers of the soul peel off to reveal a core humanity.

Terry Edwards. Did I mention his name?

James Johnston and Mick Harvey, both with unforgettable and unbeatable chops, did damn well … their shifting balance between organ/ piano/ guitar/ bass was sublime to watch.

The rest of the band included Jean-Marc Butty, John Parish (Polly’s frequent co-writer) and Enrico Gabrielli; I suspect the other three were also musicians on her current lp, ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’.

Although some of the people trying to make life better in Ward 7 (go look it up), they’ve kinda missed the point… the song is presented in a parable-esque manner, like a very short play if you like. You’re not expected to go away thinking about this one particular place. It’s a metaphor for broader human behaviour… by people powerful enough to allow a place to plummet into neglect and destruction… PJH could’ve easily used any one of dozens of places in the UK… but a place which, frankly, isn’t exactly on the world map works just fine as a metaphor.

Proof? If you didn’t live in the area, and you heard the song… you’d have had to look up Ward 7. (It’s in Washington, now go and google it)

Polly Jean Harvey is an artist at the top of her game. If she gets any better than this, U2 are gonna be in serious trouble.

The set ran:

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

Encoure:

Guilty// The Last Living Rose


So yes, there’s a lot from the new LP, a bare handful from her last ("Let England Shake"), and a couple from earlier albums and another couple older songs.

And the encore? Those thugs at the back set up several BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM in several successive determined assaults on the now empty stage…

until… WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM

Bits of plaster dust shake loose and shimmy down. And, in a lull…

… She returns with her nine men. And we love them all.

Two songs later, the ugly lights come up and we’re looking at each other in horror and the theatre is over for the night, and we straggle out in the gently falling rain as a small army of roadies swarm in, and the lighting rig lowers itself to the ground and amps and lights are packed in boxes not dissimilar from the cells in an insect’s hive.

Go here for Polly stuff.  Go here for Terry Edwards stuff. 

Tags: live, adelaide, pj harvey, polly jean harvey, thebarton theatre

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