Polly Jean Harvey arrives on stage at Brixton’s o2 Academy to the rum-pum-pum of a marching band. Dressed in black with billowing, ghostly sleeves, she files in amidst her nine-piece backing ensemble, not immediately visible to those in the cheap seats.
As the mobile drummers take their position at the dual kits behind her, PJ steps out from the line up of horns, keys and guitars and assumes her position centre stage. From that moment on, the room is hers – an audience enraptured by her phenomenal vocal range and the stories she has to tell.
This year saw the release of the singer’s ninth studio album, the politically-charged ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ and this show is all about that.
A wall of brutalist, pre-fab blocks looms over her sombre band. The lights range from dusky, desert yellow to a deep and eerie blue. The two hour and twenty-something song setlist draws mainly from her latest work – a complex art project imagined during her time spent in the Middle East. First ‘Hope Six’ single ‘The Wheel’ prompts big cheers. “They’re gonna put a Walmart here” sing the Academy hordes, during ‘The Community of Hope’ later letting out audible gasps at the spectacular saxophone solo rounding off ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’.
The pre-encore chunk of the show climaxed with a jaw-dropping performance of ‘River Anacostia’. The band joined Harvey, one by one, at the front of stage, singing a capella in haunting unison. Brixton was on its feet in rapturous applause.
For a show where the hits were so notably absent – ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Is This Desire’ were some of the only real people pleasers – the audience was transfixed. It was a different kind of show – theatrical, beautiful and one that cemented Harvey as one of the most unique and talented performers of her generation. The night ended with an encore featuring her cover of Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisted’. Like him, Polly Jean Harvey is a poet, a storyteller and someone to be treasured.
PJ Harvey plays the following dates on her ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’ Tour
o2 Brixton Academy, London – 31 Oct
Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, Glasgow – 2 Nov
Victoria Warehouse, Manchester – 3 Nov
Starworks Warehouse, Wolverhampton – 4 Nov