Like a voodoo funeral, the black parade marches onstage, some banging mourning drums, others bearing saxophones that wail like grieving walruses. The centrepiece is the widow in the purple dress and crystalline feather headdress – Polly Jean set deep into what we’ll call her ‘I saw Goody Harvey with the devil’ phase. She’s certainly in tune with the spirit of this pagan-leaning weekend; you can be sure, before eventide is out, something’s getting burned.
Like Ziggy Stardust, ‘Sgt Pepper’ or Costello’s Beard Years, it’s always engaging when an acclaimed artist indulges in a distinct persona or period of work, and PJ Harvey, two albums into her Wartime Witchery era, is clearly revelling in its engrossing aesthetic. For the first 75 minutes the rest of her catalogue is all but a closed spellbook, with almost every song taken from the battle-scarred dark ages doom-jazz of ‘Let England Shake’ or its relatively upbeat sister piece ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’. ‘Upbeat’, that is, in that it sprinkles glitter on the corpses in what can only be described as a cadazzle.
Whether mourning the dead of Bosworth, Flanders, Dunkirk and Iraq on ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Glorious Land’ or bewailing the machinations and mechanisation of modern politics and consumerism on ‘and the suicide pop of ‘The Ministry Of Defence’ (“this is the way the world ends” Polly declares, not with a bang but with the sound of a saxophone committing auto-erotic asphyxiation), Harvey makes for an entrancing figure, both fragile and sinister, despairing and foreboding, a victim of fractured Britain and a soothsayer of its present and future ills. As her tombstone blues plays out, wracked with dark drama and accompanied by Harvey’s interpretive mimes of marching to a battlefront death, it’s like she’s reading things in your bones.
As saxophone torments give way to glorious chorales and catchy glam choruses emerge about disappearing children, it’s clear Bowie’s latter-era baton has been passed Peej’s way. But even with ‘The Community Of Hope’ coming on like the autopsy of a diamond dog and the odd injection of rattlesnake punk in the form of ‘Shame’ from her ‘Uh Huh Her’ album, this is inevitably a one-note show. So it comes as a relief when she breaks the seal on her older songs and lets loose a stray smatter of hits which gel with the over-arching aesthetic. ‘50ft Queenie’ shivers and shakes with a fresh garage fever, ‘Down By The Water’ slithers like an anaconda eying up swimmers in the bayou and ‘To Bring You My Love’ sounds like a love set to smother.
The show closes with ‘River Anacostia’, the full funeral troupe lined across the front of the stage intoning “wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water” as if seeing a burning coffin off to sea. As it closes, a procession of druids to the side of the stage light fire torches and march off to set the Green Man at the heart of the festival alight. The crowd follow on in a daze, still a little bewitched. Something wickedly wonderful this way came.