Archive for Wolf Trap

PJ Harvey’s Astonishing Show At Wolf Trap

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 22, 2017 by johnbuckley100

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In the 21st Century, the only musical artist working with a conceptual breadth to rival Radiohead has been PJ Harvey.  Last night at Wolf Trap, with a nine-man band of shape-shifters who reconsolidated themselves, moment by moment, with emphases on percussion, horns, and strings, she accomplished what has become such a rarity: a live show of complex material that sounded so much better than the studio output.

They marched in like Buddhist monks about to perform the Black Hat Dance, nine men and a waif with a saxophone in her hands, and by the time they were into “Chain Of Keys” from last year’s D.C. travelogue, The Hope Six Demolition Project, the effect was astonishing.  The baritone saxes and all-men’s choir, the double drums and guitars, all allowed Harvey’s high, pitch-perfect voice to cut through the humid night air.  We say that her band, largely intact from her last album and one of the century’s greatest works, Let England Shake, sounded even better than it did in the studio, and so it did.  Paradoxically note perfect and looser, combined with a singer who over 90 minutes literally never hit a flat note, this was a live act on a tour you pray someone has the sense to let tapes roll so that that a rara avis can be captured: a live album you’d want to play instead of the source material.

The third song of the evening was “Shame” from 2004’s undervalued Uh Huh Her, but until she got to a mini-set of old songs three-fourths of the way through the show, the material moved back and forth between Hope Six and Let England Shake, with an emphasis on the latter.  Live, “The Glorious Land” was the perhaps strongest anti-war denunciation in musical history, as she hauntingly indicted America and England in growing “the glorious fruit in our land/the fruit is deformed children/what is the glorious fruit in our land/the fruit is orphaned children.”  She may have been singing about World War I, but at an outdoor show in Northern Virginia, with the Pentagon — the “Ministry of Defence” — so near, it was a searing indictment.

PJ 1Last year, when Harvey released The Hope Six Demonstration Project, it was proof that she operates on a literary plane different from her peers, because like her World War I chronicle, Let England Shake, it wasn’t simply an album of songs, it was an interconnected set of observations from her visits to Washington and Kosovo.  Widely criticized, including, perhaps, here, the put down was that she had taken a “windshield tour” of DC’s poorest neighborhoods and exploited them with a shallow rendering of their pathologies.  Last night, though, as the songs were allowed to breath in the hot night air, we changed our mind a bit, and found ourselves loving the material in a way we hadn’t last year, even as we included the album as #7 on our 2016 Top 10 List of albums.  And when she closed the set by bringing out Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church Choir for “River Anacostia” and then “The Community of Hope,” all was forgiven.

To a non-PJ Harvey fan who was seeing her last night, we tried in advance to widen the frame of what to expect.  Don’t judge her, we said, in the narrow context of what kind of rock’n’roll show she puts on.  Harvey works on a level not dissimilar from Dylan, channeling all sorts of pre-rock influences, in her case going back to Greek theater. With her songs of war and the pain of missing children, this is musical theater as classic literature.  Oh, and also gorgeous rock’n’roll.  Last night, she did not disappoint.

The Rolling Stones in ’72.  The Clash in ’79, Gang of Four in ’80.  Alejandro Escovedo in 1997.  Yeah, PJ Harvey in 2017.  We won’t soon forget it.

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