Two days after winning the Mercury Music Prize for her album Let England Shake (a record-setting second win in 10 years, let’s not forget, the first being for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea) PJ Harvey and her band arrived in Manchester to play a live show at the legendary and cavernous Apollo, a show I was lucky enough to see.
Lucky in that I got to witness what was an excellent performance and a great reminder of just what a good songwriter Polly Harvey is. The huge Apollo stage was minimally decorated, and yet Harvey and her three backing musicians (John Parrish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty) managed to dominate it. Harvey had her own solo set up away from the others on the left hand side of the stage, while the band and their kit were grouped together further back on the right. But this wasn’t a disjointed or egotistical affair; it worked perfectly, and each member got their own turn in the (literal) spotlight.
Stepping in and out of the light seemed to be a theme of the show, with a group of spotlights and a constantly working smoke machine at the back of the dark stage being the only concessions to design (apart from the church-pugh style bench Mick Harvey was sat on). Polly Harvey looked amazing in a black Victorian-gothic dress with matching head gear - an inverted version of what she wore at the Mercury’s - and at the moments when she was freed from playing her zither or guitar she slinked in and out of the heavy smoke and bare light like an undead spirit emerging from her tomb. Those moments stood to remind the audience just how magnetic a performer Harvey is, even when she’s doing hardly anything.
Harvey has seemingly abandoned the notion of guitar, bass and drums and a traditional rock-band set-up, and much like Bjork, focussed on creating a unique and unusual sound world of her own. So Mick Harvey plays a distorted electric piano, Parrish backs him up on guitar and/or a Nord synth, and Butty focuses his drums around floor toms played with maracas, and a military, marching-style snare. The three backing musicians swapped instruments and places regularly, and all got their turn on vocals. Having not had a chance to listen to Let England Shake yet I was very impressed with the songs, which were delicate, moving, and surprisingly very short. The atmosphere of loss and melancholy was at times very powerful, without descending into patronising hectoring that is the failure of most “protest” music. The show’s set list comprised of Let England Shake played through in it’s entirety, and a final section (including encore) of some older favourites including “Down By The Water” and “C’Mon Billy”. Harvey proved that she is a mistress of the “less is more” school of performance and the show was all the more engaging for it.
As I said before I was lucky to get in to the gig - lucky to see such a beautiful and moving show, but also lucky in that I managed to be in the right place at the right time to be offered a free guest list place. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone - the tickets for the show (including booking fee) were a frankly extortionate £40. As excellent a performer and writer as Harvey is, I just can’t see how the show justifies the cost of that ticket. Maybe this is what the promoters knew they could get away with charging, or maybe it’s just the way the live music industry in general is headed. But there were no support acts and Harvey’s set lasted only one hour and twenty minutes - a few people I spoke to after the show said they didn’t think it was worth the price. And those were fans that enjoyed it too.
Perhaps when PJ Harvey tours Let England Shake outside the UK the tickets will be cheaper. I certainly hope so, because as many people as possible deserve to see this show. Here are a couple of clips from YouTube uploader Pogonka - they are bit shaky but the audio quality isn’t bad:
PJ Harvey “Let England Shake” live Manchester Apollo 9/8/11
PJ Harvey “The Glorious Land” live Manchester Apollo 9/8/11
Thanks to Jayne Compton!