Friday, May 28, 2021

May 28th 1995, PJ Harvey and Tricky at The Phoenix


Some shows stand out in your memory for a variety of reasons, a convergence of moments that work perfectly together and become magical in the retelling, and PJ Harvey and Tricky at the Phoenix is one of those magical shows for me. 

The release of "To Bring You My Love" in 1995 signaled a shift in Harvey's work, moving away from the stripped down Southern Gothic Blues of her earlier albums and stepping into a more polished and confident style embracing a wider and more expansive sound. Where her first two albums were largely based around a standard trio, "To Bring You My Love" found Harvey using the studio to focus on finer details and nuances that made for a more immersive listening experience. It was a significant step forward for her as an artist, an early example of the kind of re-invention that would define all of her albums to come and would establish her reputation as a dynamic and engaging artist, a reputation that stands to this day.

Shortly after the release of the album, Harvey announced a tour that would bring her to the Phoenix along with opening act Tricky. Not only would this be another chance for me to see PJ Harvey touring on the strength of an awesome new album, but it would also be a chance to see Tricky's first gig in Toronto, and that had me pretty interested. I really enjoyed the Goth-y Trip Hop style of Tricky's debut "Maxinquaye", a dark and claustrophobic sound that fully connected with the Darkwave and Post-Punk stuff that I was mostly listening to at the time and I was curious about how it would all come together live. On the album Tricky showed a real gift for mixing together samples and sounds in jarring and abstract ways to create unsettling and uneasy musical spaces, and his alternating whispered and growled vocals sat in rough contrast with partner Martina Mobley Bird's more controlled vocal range to create a truly engaging musical tension. There was no doubt in my mind that the pairing of Tricky's creation of space with PJ Harvey's new approach to her music promised a really exciting concert.

The show was set to start at 630pm, probably because the Phoenix had a live to air broadcast scheduled for later in the evening, so my friend Bevin and I made sure to get there early so we wouldn't miss any of Tricky's set. While we were waiting for everything to start we played a few games of pool in the lounge to the side of the theatre space, and I'm reminded that Bevin and I were constantly playing pool at that point in our lives. I haven't played in years but I miss it sometimes, there's something about the physics and math behind the game that I really enjoy. Anyway, we were playing pool in the side room when Tricky's set started, the haunting opening notes of Overcome drifting in and drawing us out  toward the stage. It was a short set, maybe only half an hour, just a handful of songs from "Maxinquaye" but it was mesmerizing from start to finish. I don't remember it as individual songs, more a steady wash of music and sound that flowed around the audience, with Black Steel performed at the end, a frenzied finish to an awesome set that fully solidified my appreciation and admiration for Tricky in the process.

By contrast PJ Harvey's set was more defined and focused in it's performance, but it was by no means less awesome. Harvey had expanded her band for this tour, adding a keyboard player and an extra guitarist which meant that she didn't have to play any of the guitar lines herself. That freed her to roam around the stage more actively, making for a more dynamic and physical performance that ran parallel to the more fulsome sound of her work at the time. 

Her set was primarily focused on the new album, and she played most of it along with a couple of tracks from "Rid of Me". About midway through the set she did a wicked version of Naked Cousin, all screaming vocals and apocalyptic guitar chords played in raw and bloody contrast to the other more slick songs of the night, and it was particularly amazing. She played Down by the Water shortly after that, droning guitars and ebow'd notes wrapping around her vocals, her arms outstretched while she played castanets. Seeing that song live for the first time was an incredible study in tension and atmosphere, an amazing moment that held the audience spellbound.

After Harvey's set ended and we were ushered out of the venue by security Bevin and I walked back to my place on Gerrard, talking about the show the whole time. There were a lot of big moments, little moments, grand gestures, and subtly graceful movements that stood out amid everything else, magical things that needed to be recognized and spoken to by each of us. Both Harvey and Tricky were on fire that night and the show gave us a lot to talk about, and when we got back to the apartment we went on an on to my girlfriend for at least an hour about what an amazing night it was, not to brag about it or to make her feel badly for missing it, more to try and share what we had seen and experienced, trying to share a little bit of the show's magic with her. I don't know how well we succeeded but it was well worth trying to share with her, some shows are special like that.

For years afterwards there was a picture taken from that night hanging in the hallway of the Phoenix outside of the lounge leading into the main theatre, Harvey crouched and coiled as if she was about to spring into the audience, black hair in mid swing cutting thick lines across the spotlights that shine around her. It's a really stark and powerful image, fully capturing not just that moment, but the spirit of the show as a whole, a reminder of an exceptional concert by a pair of exceptional artists. Every time I'd go to the Phoenix I'd take a moment to look at that picture and remember what a great show it was, and even though it was taken down a few years ago, I still make a point of looking for it in the hallway whenever I'm there in hopes that somebody has decided to put it back up again. It's a pretty amazing picture, and while the show it came from was over twenty five years ago, there's still a lot of magic captured in that image, magic that's still well worth sharing...

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