John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey
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- Anson Rooms, Bristol »
A winding career as an Americana forerunner can get wearisome for a fellow, don’t you know: well, if Giant Sand alt.country stalwart Howe Gelb’s heavy-hearted exhalations this evening are anything to go by. Behind distinguished stubbly face furniture and The Untouchables-style headgear, Gelb seems half-intent on skewering his own set. Despite tempering any outward mannerisms that suggest he would, really, rather not be here with lashings of good-natured banter, his wibbly guitar pedal abuse slightly derails the nobility of a set cherry-picking his solo and Giant Sand history. Still, it’s hard to hate when he bemuses a good chunk of the audience by thanking them for his favourite export from their city, Harveys Bristol Cream, before launching into an impromptu Bruce Springsteen riff, asking us to fill him in on exactly which of The Boss’s songs he is peeling out.
A sporadic career in the engine room behind one of Britain’s most charismatic musicians can get wearisome for a fellow, don’t you know: well, if John Parish, back on home turf in Bristol, is anything to go by. No matter that he wrote all the music on both of his collaborative albums with PJ Harvey – that’s Dance Hall At Louse Point and, over a decade later, this year’s A Woman A Man Walked By. Without her unpredictable narratives and, in the live arena, politely unhinged antics we’d be left with painfully adult-pleasing blues-brushed rock. Admit it. But that’s okay. You almost suspect that’s how the mild-mannered Parish likes it: give Peej the paths to navigate and let her go. And go wild. Because tonight, at the closest Dorset-raised Harvey has to a homecoming gig, it’s the Polly Jean show, no mistake.
Looking, from a distance, as if she’s stepped off A Woman...’s cover artwork, flower girl hair decorations included, from the moment she ghosts onstage – never managing anything quite as human as walking – Harvey simply owns. Obvious visual star qualities aside, when she opens her mouth for the first time it renders everything else in the venue – from chattering spectators to her own band-mates – non-existent. It’s a voice that cuts straight through the Anson Rooms’ leisure centre acoustics as if all the sonic gremlins in the world couldn’t stop her.
Focusing heavily on A Woman... it follows that when Harvey springs to fully animated life the set’s peaks immediately rise forth. She’s positively possessed spitting out its title track, all ‘chicken-livered’ insults and vaguely terrifying threats (promises?) to penetrate some unfortunate chap’s corn-hole, as flailing and filthy as Grinderman after a violent sex change. Her awkward manic dancing, where once percussive contributions lay, is apparently, if later apologies are to be believed, down to prior maraca-shaking RSI. We, meanwhile, are left deliberating who artistically drew most from whom during Harvey’s past romantic dalliances with Nick Cave.
Despite that bombast, though, it’s the skeletal moments that truly shake your spine. The Soldier is nothing if not haunting. A house light powers up like the sun itself rising at the exact second ‘Cracks In The Canvas’ displays a thimble of hope among otherwise barren – and at times clunky – bereavement talk. ‘April’ ends the encore with frailty to rival prime Sparklehorse, confirming PJ Harvey’s unshakable ability to crush hearts with even the simplest raw materials. And as long as she flaunts such ventricle-stimulating skills, you just can’t take your eyes off her.