Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April 13th 2017, PJ Harvey at Massey Hall

PJ Harvey's show at Massey Hall in 2017 was her first visit to Toronto since playing the Phoenix in support of the "Uh Huh Her" album back in 2004. Thirteen years is a long time between shows, especially given that Harvey had been producing some of the best and most relevant work of her career during that period, playing gigs in Europe and some of the larger US markets but missing Toronto each time she toured. It was a long stretch between shows.

In 2007 Harvey released "White Chalk" shortly after my partner Carolyn and I started dating, and that album became our soundtrack for a number of months. I remember the first time we played it, actively listening, not moving, just lying there staring at the ceiling while we heard it for the very first time. We didn't say a word, we were just so fully absorbed in its sparse piano based structure and Harvey's restrained vocals, completely spellbound by what we were hearing. When it was done I started it over again, and I think we listened through maybe four times before either of us could speak, we were just so overcome by the experience. I had hoped that Harvey would tour for it, I was really looking forward to seeing her play live again and I wanted to take Carolyn because she'd never seen her in concert before. But there weren't any shows in Toronto that year, with Harvey opting instead for a tour through Europe and some promo in New York and Los Angeles. So we waited.

In 2009 when Harvey released her collaboration with John Parrish, "A Woman a Man Walked By", I was sure there would be a tour but again no such luck. And when she released "Let England Shake" in 2011 it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she'd tour for that album, I mean, by that point she hadn't done a major North American tour in years, wasn't it obvious that she would play some gigs? And she did, but she didn't come to Toronto then either.
As stated, it had been a long time since PJ Harvey last played here, and the more time passed, the more I was hoping that Carolyn and I would get to see her live at some point. With the release of every album I became more and more curious to hear her new songs live, to see what she'd do with them, how she'd recreate them in a concert setting. So when she announced that she'd be doing a North American tour for her latest album "The Hope Six Demolition Project" and that it would be opening at Massey Hall in Toronto, I was justifiably excited.

The weeks that led up to the show were spent familiarizing myself with the new album, listening carefully for clues in the music about what to expect at the show, along with revisiting older stuff to get into the mood. Throughout Harvey's career she's displayed a definite habit for reinvention, and she's always presented a very distinct focus and persona on each album, with a sense of purpose and clarity that defines each of them as a unique musical entity. "The Hope Six Demolition Project" was no exception to that rule, with Harvey taking on the part of impassioned journalist and observer, and I was very curious about how this role would translate live in terms of both newer and older material, but I resisted the urge to watch any video of her performances in Europe earlier in the tour, opting instead to be surprised when I finally saw the show. And even though I really wanted to, in retrospect I'm glad that I didn't do any prior viewing beforehand. The feeling of anticipation and prickly excitement leading up to the moment when the lights dimmed at Massey Hall were well worth all of the wait.

The set opened with Harvey and the band marching in a line onto the stage to perform Chain of Keys, a dramatic opening executed with precision and focus, and it perfectly set the tone for the rest of the night. This wasn't going to be a loose rock show where anything could happen, this was a planned and choreographed performance designed to highlight the strength of the songs being played. It clearly suggested that there was no ego here, the music was much more important than Harvey or the band's individual talents. And true to this idea, after the song was finished Harvey retreated to the back of the stage where she drank some water and let the rest of the band build up the next song, The Ministry of Defence. There was no in between song chatter, there was no "HELLOOOOO TORONTO!!!!" carefully enunciated over a searing guitar solo leading into the big new single, it was all very understated and planned out.

And I really liked that.

Over the course of the next ninety minutes Harvey traveled backwards through her catalog, focusing largely on material from the new album, playing a suite of songs from "Let England Shake", a pair of songs from "White Chalk", and a handful of classics from earlier releases, including 50ft Queenie and her manic cover of Highway 61 Revisited from "Rid of Me", the album that introduced me to her work and made a lifelong fan out of me. Each song she performed was perfectly executed, masterfully played. New songs like The Wheel and Orange Monkey sounded great, and I quite enjoyed the stomp and urgency of The Words that Maketh Murder from "Let England Shake".

But it was When Under Ether and The Devil from "White Chalk" that really stood out as particular highlights for me. On album both tracks feel very fragile, reveling in their sparse arrangements, coming across as almost delicate in their execution. Performed live they took on a new life with a more fulsome arrangement that complimented their strengths without lessening their beauty. I'm sure that my own personal connections and appreciation for the songs made me more inclined to like those two over the rest of the show, but I really do think that they were the two best songs of the evening.

Throughout the night Harvey had minimal interaction with the audience, choosing instead to creep forward to the front of the stage to sing a few verses, and then retreating to the back or the side to let the band spend some time in the spotlight. It was a habit that brought to mind waves on a beach, and that idea struck me as significant as it fits in so well with Harvey's work, filled as it is with water imagery, rivers, seas, and drownings. I'm probably just projecting my own thoughts onto the experience, but in some ways that ebb and flow added to the performance for me, bringing together the themes and concepts in her songs even more effectively, a holistic approach to her work that spoke to the totality of her vision.

Or maybe she just wasn't feeling very talkative that evening. That's a possibility too...

I suppose I could go on rhapsodizing about the show, saying how awesome Harvey's feathered fascinator was, or the way she brandished her saxophone like a sigil meant to conjure up magical forces, or how great The Community of Hope sounds live. I could tell you about the little finger gestures she made during Down by the Water, or the glory of hands clapping, or just how happy I was to finally see a PJ Harvey show with Carolyn after all these years, but I worry that's getting into minutiae that won't matter to anybody else but me, so I probably shouldn't bother telling you about all of that. Suffice to say that it was an incredible performance where Harvey fully demonstrated the wealth of talent and artistry within her work. 
And here we are four years since the show, and that talent and artistry continues to amaze and inspire me. New material from Harvey during that time has been limited to a few soundtracks and a couple of singles, but a recent reissue campaign with her back catalog being released on vinyl along with companion albums of demo tracks has me revisiting her work and rediscovering it in a new context. A context that reaffirms her standing as a true artist who's vision and ideal have remained strong and focused throughout her career.
But as much as I enjoy listening to her back catalog, of course I look forward to the next time she comes to Toronto. Whether she's looking back on older material or touring in support of something new, I have faith that it will be another awesome show in keeping with her past visits. PJ Harvey has always been a dynamic and engaging performer and I'm sure that her next tour will fully demonstrate that...

No comments:

Post a Comment