Live: PJ Harvey at the Beacon Theatre
I got a ticket to this show for the sole purpose of manufacturing an excuse to post the video above, which depicts fighting giraffes. You need to see this, I think, these giraffes. Given the terse, seething, deceptively placid nature of PJ Harvey’s new White Chalk—mostly somber piano dirges, her voice high and brittle and largely robbed of its beloved guttural roar—I figured I could cook up a totally sweet metaphor here. Onstage I figured she’d be delicate, demure, unthreatening, and then suddenly there’d be this violent outburst of rage and hostility that would hurt her as badly as whoever she was attacking. Like the giraffes, see. They just stand there for twenty seconds or so, unblinking and unguarded (“You can almost hear them saying, ‘It’s OK, bro, we’re cool, we’re cool,’” a friend observes), and then, without warning, THWACK THWACK THWACK. They are head-butting each other with malicious ardor.
But the Beacon Theatre lights go down, the sold-out crowd whoops, and Polly Jean Harvey, clad in an ornate white dress almost identical to the one she’s wearing on White Chalk’s cover (except, she jokes, this one’s got her lyrics written on it), fucks up my whole giraffe thing in the first ten seconds. Tonight will be all ardor. She is alone onstage, with a majestically surly electric guitar, and she is loud. Jesus. She barrels haughtily through “To Bring You My Love” and “Send His Love to Me” with the husky snarl of a longshoreman and the subtlety of a gong. The crowd is exhilarated. Even when she moves to a Christmas-light–adorned upright piano (with no plate in front, its innards exposed, so you can see the hammers strike the strings within—a slightly more apt metaphor), she pounds through Chalk’s “When Under Ether” and “The Devil” with far more fire than she allows on record—“COME HERE AT ONCE,” she thunders, and we come. Thunderous applause between songs, accompanied by loopy shouts of “I love your dress!” and “You saved my life!” and “Make a live DVD!”
She switches from electric to acoustic to keyboard (with a side of wanton cymbal-bashing) to autoharp, the latter whereupon she indulges us with “Down by the Water.” But she’s best on electric guitar, impossibly loud and visceral and defiant, bashing through “Man-Size” and “Big Exit” (a swinging jaunt superior to the version on my favorite PJ record, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea). This is probably the most intimidating one-person performance I’ve ever seen, all THWACK THWACK THWACK with no pause, no letup. “Snake” is among the scariest 90 seconds of my life. It’s never OK, bro. It’s never cool. So awesome it was riotously funny. Like the giraffes, see.