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PJ Harvey Battles Chatterboxes And iPhones At San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre And Wins!...Or, A Review And Commentary On Why Coachella Is Not Only In The Desert…Or, STILL, An Amazing Artist On Display If People Could Just SHUT UP!

These are the types of photos you get when you can't bring a camera into the show

Coachella for San Franciscans tends to last far longer than the three-days in the desert many are about to participate in. By that I mean, being the next market for bands travelling to and from the perennial “buzz bin” showcase and reunion spawning Woodstock for hipsters, we are blessed in the Bay Area to see many of the bands playing the Indio Polo Fields – all from the comfort of our own slice of far foggier hipster heaven. One of the more highly anticipated Coachella performances is the return of Polly Jean Harvey after several years of touring inactivity stateside. PJ Harvey performed at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre last night in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,200. Harvey is on tour – by tour I mean last night’s performance, Coachella, and two shows at NYC’s Terminal 5 - supporting her latest release Let England Shake. This album is a rarefied musing on war from various perspectives, done largely in a subdued, British folk tradition, that would feel more current to people from the 19th century than those expecting the “Sheela-Ne-Gig” exhibitionism of Harvey’s indie-rock past. Harvey is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Her recent albums have reflected her dogged desire to follow whatever muse inspires her, critics and fans alike be DAMNED!

This made for an interesting setting at the Warfield where the packed house was treated to music that required attention, reflection, and perhaps most importantly, quiet, to derive the true benefit of one’s concert dollar. Sadly, save for those packed in tight on the floor and those seated in the balcony, little quiet was on display. The chatter seemed to focus largely on, “how cool it was to FINALLY see her…” and  “What a HUGE fan of her music I am…” and “She’s just soooo GREAT…” BLAH, BLAH, BLAH! This should come as no surprise considering how most concert experiences have become as much a celebration of self as the music everyone gives lip-service to being there to see. As a veteran of the Coachella festival over the last few years, this “Paean to Self” is why I wasn’t interested in attending this year. The shift in recent years has been away from the music and musicians toward the attendees and their triumph of lifestyle as substance. I was hoping to escape some of that seeing Harvey at the Warfield. Alas, I spent a large part of the evening trying to navigate around over-zealous security guards, hell-bent on protecting the sovereignty of the “aisle” – which are seemingly ubiquitous – and the various pockets of chatterboxes or those texting away in a glow of communicative ecstasy. As someone interested in what Harvey had to say, it was a bit distracting to say the least.

A Victorian vision worthy of by RLC
None of the above commentary should detract from the brilliant performance Harvey and her gifted band put on for those that chose to focus on it. A band that included longtime collaborator John Parish (bass, guitar, piano/keyboard, vocal) and legendary Bad Seed, Mick Harvey (guitar and various other instruments), along with a wonderful drummer invoked the songs with the perfect balance of heft and delicacy, which suited the material largely drawn from Let England Shake. Harvey, always an arresting performer, did not disappoint musically or visually. She entered the stage like a feather festooned, Victorian goddess, who had wandered in from a contemplative walk through the moors and crags of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Clutching an Autoharp in a full-length, white trumpet style gown with the slightest slit revealing black knee-high Victorian leather boots and adorned with a black-feathered headdress of grandiose proportions, her face paled with theatre makeup, she was set off from the band on stage right. She delivered her songs in a powerful lilt with well-postured conviction. The show was lit using classic theatre lighting of varying shades of white and amber. Having the band offset from Harvey making her “narrator” to the bands actions complemented the stark lighting and staging – too bad this was not more of a theatre-going crowd. Early set highlights included “Let England Shake”, “The Words That Maketh Murder”, and “The Last Living Rose”. Harvey is as understated these days, as she was unhinged during the Dry and Rid Of Me period of her musical career. Even when she strapped on a guitar for songs, “This Is Love” (from Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea) or “Down By The Water” (from To Bring You My Love), she was an exercise in restraint and elegance. Her new album really was the focus of most of the show and songs like “Bitter Branches” and “In Dark Places” are easily as necessary as anything from her revered back catalog. The latter song features the wonderful vocal harmony and interplay between her and Parish. For a album based on a the relatively dark theme of war, Harvey’s songs and treatment of them live bring out the heroism and resoluteness of conviction that often lead us there.
The mysterious PJ Harvey shrouded in the blackness of war...Or, another cheap camera phone pic.

Her near two-hour set was more akin to a theatrical performance than the cathartic RAWK show some may have been expecting. The only words uttered by Harvey were heartfelt thanks at the end of the set and the introduction of her band. When she returned for an encore, which included a deliciously mysterious version of “Angelene” (off Is This Desire), that feeling of catharsis was reached for anyone that followed the dramatic arc of a performance and performer whose idiosyncrasy is rare in music these days. Simply attending a show to say you were there with pictures to prove misses the point of why we value artists in our society. In the case of someone of Harvey’s ability it is to meditate on what it means to be human and why we gather at communal events in the first place. It might just be to feel connected to some common love or celebrate the survival of the daily wars being waged on our sensibilities. In a world of distractions it would be nice if we allowed ourselves a couple of hours to simply focus, and not be distracted.

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