Death Becomes Her! PJ Harvey beguiles the State Theatre, Sydney

Ever since she exploded onto the music scene in 1991 with her debut single, Dress, followed by the primal howl of her debut album, Dry, Polly has continued to confound and confront.  Constantly reinventing whilst staying true her musical roots she has managed to guide her career path and stay within the alternative camp while still being recognised way beyond her possessive fan base.  Much of this is down to the company she has kept along the way, choosing a core element of skilled and honest musicians.  She has remained faithful to her mentors and created a tight-knit collection of artists that have in turn expressed their undivided loyalty.  So with this in mind, she is now embarking on her most visually austere and musically esoteric tour of her career.

The State Theatre – a flamboyant and ostentatious nod to the grand designs of Art Nouveau was the perfect venue for the ascetic staging of the bleak but beautiful, ‘Let England Shake’.  The contrast between setting and set was a stark reminder of the senseless plight of wealth and the omnipresence of death and humanity. The stage at the State theatre looks like a church hall with its sparse, jumbled and bucolic set up.  Polly’s elder statesman musicians, Mick Harvey, Jean Marc-Butty and fellow Dorset resident, John Parish all embellish the theme with Edwardian style garments.  Polly completes the quartet with her unique personality incorporating yet another striking image, this time in the shape of a medieval high priestess, head to toe in black with a flamboyantly witchy head-piece!  The lighting rather resembles a minimalist noir theatre production, all shade and sepia luminescence, the heavy use of searching spot lights simulating the second world war blitz.

The set was short and shorn of any rock numbers, the mood and sense of place was far more important than any musical tokenism.  Recent album, ‘White Chalk’s haunting ballads sit comfortably with the olde worlde folk of ‘Let England Shake’.  The instruments were played crisply with the organic sound emanating with more visceral energy than should be possible with such a sparse and humble set.  The Mellotron added texture while Marc-Butty’s drumming was both subtle and penetrating.  Polly’s vocals were piercing but in an ethereal and saintly manner rather than the devilish howl of old.  Most of her songs, especially the ‘Let England Shake’ numbers were sung in a trebley mid range that unsettled and evoked the 30s singing of Edith Piaf and Sarah Vaughan.

Many concerts inspire and amuse, while others offer catharsis through sound.  This spellbinding performance from Polly and her aged troops glimpsed a world of redemption through the majesty of expression and truth, a portal that lasted just one and half hours, but will remain embedded in our conciousness forever!

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