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PJ Harvey

Vic, June 10

PJ Harvey's electric guitar has served as a heavy cloak, smothering all but the most basic elements of her onstage personality. A calm, knowing smile and effective vocals were all that shone beneath her brilliantly terse and knotty guitar playing. Unencumbered by the instrument on her current tour, Harvey's sprung up with the sudden force of an unleashed jack-in-the-box. Her unpopular dismissal of drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, who supported her on Dry and Rid of Me, was clearly necessary for Harvey's creative development; they were skin she had to shed. The shifting personnel on her latest album, To Bring You My Love, craft a much greater stylistic terrain than the old trio, pouring forth varied moods, textures, and attacks. But the most striking and captivating result of the new band is Harvey's liberation.

Following the Steve Albini-produced, de rigueur muted vocals on Rid of Me, Harvey's singing became a primary focus on her latest record. Her voice navigates broader turf and is more powerful and assured in its pinpoint assault. Aglow with supreme confidence, her performance at the Vic last Saturday seized upon the strides made on the new album and blew them up larger than life. Able to move freely across the stage, Harvey offered a dramatic display of sheer sensuality and crippling emotion. The bluesy quality of the band--more in feeling than form--interacted with Harvey's physical gestures and singing to create a continuously flowing, nearly primordial expression. Dressed in a slight flowered dress and unwieldy high heels and sporting wildly exaggerated makeup--fake eyelashes capped by globs of gold sequins that seemed to jut out inches from her face--she exuded a grand, somewhat vampish theatricality.

Consumed by the music, Harvey was clearly reveling in her performance. Arms flapping, neck bobbing, and haunch strutting, Harvey's birdlike movements were distorted by dramatic lighting--crisscrossing spots, explosive shards of color, and torch-singing spotlights--redolent of the heavy atmosphere usually reserved for Diamanda Galas. Early in the set she propped a colorful stuffed parrot on her mike stand; it seemed to inspire her. Between songs she receded into a shy woman, demurely smiling and quietly appreciative. She never broke her spell with meaningless niceties aimed at the screaming crowd--no "How ya doing?" here. While her distinctive guitar playing may have been missed, her astonishing visual display more than compensated; it was nothing short of breathtaking.

The bulk of her material was taken from To Bring You My Love. She played nothing from Dry, and the few songs from Rid of Me-- "Legs," "Hook," "50 Ft. Queenie," and "Me-Jane"--were reworked with a bone-crushing, low-down blues quotient. On songs with bass guitar--played by Nick Bagnall--the gutbucket bottom was so huge it surged with thunderous, stomach-rumbling power. While fans of the early records may have been disappointed by her focus on new material, the old stuff is simply too rigid and constricting for the vision she's now toting.

The new material is more open-ended. Starting with "To Bring You My Love," Harvey and company pulled the song's string of desperation and tension tighter, emboldening it with vocals that delivered a more resounding, urgent punch of emotion. A punishing version of "Long Snake Moan" wallowed unequivocally in down-and-out violence and bravado--the band raised their awesome din to gale force. In contrast the enigmatic imagery and mood of "Down by the Water" became more translucent and troubling. Harvey concluded the song standing on a box beaming up bright white light while she slowly spun, swayed her hips, and seductively whispered, "Little fish, big fish swimming in the water / Come back here, man, give me my daughter."

Her terrific band featured keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman (a former member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band as well as Frank Black's group), guitarists John Parish and Joe Gore (a simpatico collaborator with Tom Waits), drummer Jean Marc Butty, and bassist and second keyboardist Bagnall. Playing with impressive acuity and fluidity, their sound both swelled and shrank with subtle elasticity to undergird Harvey's keen dramatic sensibilities. Whether summoning great reserves of power or gently limning Harvey's quieter moments, as on a languid version of "Teclo," the band never faltered, perfectly framing Harvey front and center.

Harvey's two previous Chicago gigs demonstrated the abilities of a talented, unusually substantive and compelling performer. Her show at the Vic unveiled a genuine star who, without an iota of artistic compromise, carried herself in a provocative manner that went beyond genre classification. In 15 years of concert-going, I don't think I've ever seen such a riveting star turn. And the music kicked ass too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Dan Silverman.

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