Polly Jean Harvey – or simply PJ Harvey – is arguably the most complex and cerebral artist in music. She is a chameleon, constantly evolving with each and every album so that no two records in her 25-year career as a frontwoman and solo artist sound alike. Whether it is the theatrical and symphonic, avante-garde rock, mythical and mystical, or fiery alternative rock, she has mastered them all. In the process, she has taken us on the ride of our lives like no other artist has done. And for 90 minutes on a Wednesday night in Wellington, she and her immensely talented nine-piece band captured her entire career into one spectacular performance.
While we could talk about PJ Harvey’s breathtaking vocal range and her commanding presence and infectious energy, what stood out the most was the arc of the concert. Most artists are only able to create captivating songs. Very few are able to create masterful concept albums that leave a lasting impression. Then there are the rare and extraordinary individuals who are to make an entire concert flow like a classic piece of literature or an unforgettable play. On this night, PJ Harvey did just that, taking the sold-out audience at the Michael Fowler Centre on a journey that looked at the past, present, and future. It was part fiction and fantasy, but much of the performance’s focus was grounded on today’s reality.
The first half revolved around the state of the world today. Arriving in unison through the percussion-driven “Chain of Keys” and then seguing to the ripping “Ministry of Defence”, the stage was set – a battle of the people versus the tyrannical authority. Songs like “The Community of Hope” and “The Glorious Land” were the anthems of the people while “The Orange Monkey”, “Let England Shake”, and “The Words That Maketh Murder” were indirect lobs at the situations in the US and the UK.
Following the unbelievable rendition of “The Devil”, the concert’s attention turned to the plight of individuals. Not surprisingly, this is when the edgy PJ Harvey was unleashed. “50ft Queenie” and “Down By The Water” spoke to revolution and personal loss, respectively. The emotional powerhouse “To Bring You My Love” defined the sacrifices made by people to survive while the main set’s finale, “River Anacostia”, was a solemn ode to the lives we once knew.
The two-song encore further built on the idea that the end is near. The stunning “Near the Memorials To Vietnam And Lincoln” reminded us how monuments are reminders of our violent past, yet they may be the only things standing when the apocalypse arrives. The concert’s ultimate song, the classic “The Last Living Rose” which was given a remorseful remake, represented the end of all things.
There were moments during the set that were memorable, such as Terry Edwards and his white saxophone crushing the ending to “The Ministry of Social Affairs”. However, this concert will long be remember for the messages that PJ Harvey and her band conveyed. While the setlist didn’t deviate much from her October and November performances, to experience it live allowed us to fully appreciate the story and message she crafted from start to finish. It was like watching a play beautifully unfold before us. At the same time, the concert was a warning of what is happening and what is to come. While the past and present have been written, we still have a chance to change the future, much like what the native of Bridport has done her entire life.
Photos of the concert, including the photo essay below, are by Stella Gardiner. Words are by Ben Yung.
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