The first of PJ Harvey’s two nights at Brixton Academy opened with the Dorset singer-songwriter and her nine-powerful band emerging from backstage gloom in a file wearing funereally dark garments. Two drummers led the way with a military tattoo as the musicians arranged themselves in an oval shape, a gothic encampment. The 1st notes they struck up were a grave blast of noise, fuelled by three horn players like Harvey on saxophone.
When she started singing, her voice rose higher above the ominous musical reverberations, telling the story of an old woman living in a deserted Balkan village. The song was “Chain of Keys” from her most current album The Hope Six Demolition Project, whose tracks had been inspired by Harvey’s visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and the US. “Imagine what her eyes have observed,” she sang of the elderly villager she saw throughout the Kosovo trip. “We ask but she won’t let us in.”
Harvey is playing an unusual hand in The Hope Six Demolition Project. Created as a functionality art piece in which she and her musicians could be watched recording its songs in the studio, it addresses war, poverty and pollution, a world out of kilter. But Harvey is a reluctant agitpopper. Shouts from the audience at the Academy met with implacable silence, only broken at the end when she introduced her band. Like the lady in “Chain of Keys”, Harvey prefers to keep her public at a distance, even when she desires to engage them in wider problems.
Her all-male backing band played their role as retainers with formidable discipline: a saxophonist’s superbly wild solo at the end of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” was a rare moment of peacockery. Otherwise the theatricality was left to Harvey, front of stage in an artfully revealing black outfit, unencumbered by her usual guitar. The sound mix was completely judged, from the immense bass saxophone wailing like the dawning of an awful thought in “The Ministry of Defence” to the numbed subtleties of the ambient lament “Dollar, Dollar”, which ended with a wonderfully mournful tenor sax solo.
Harvey’s vocals have been dramatic, varying notes and tones expertly. At occasions she got carried away with performing, or becoming seen to be performing: the way she palmed her cheeks like Munch’s “The Scream” throughout “Dollar, Dollar” was pure ham. But largely her movements were expressive, as when her imploring gesture at the finish of “Rid of Me” was cast into darkness by an extinguished spotlight. She is a class act.