Live music review: PJ Harvey at MONA FOMA

31 January 2012

Written by: Matthew Smith

Dressed in black, PJ Harvey follows her band on stage at the MONA FOMA Festival in Hobart and stands in the darkness on the extreme left. Does she expect a minute’s silence? Well, she doesn’t get one and she isn’t going to. This is not going to be one of those shows.

As she delivers the opening lines of her Mercury Award-winning album of last year, Let England Shake, a single spotlight strikes her face and the crowd responds. Many are clearly swept up in the recognition of the title track, which is refreshing.

For an artist well into their twentieth year as a solo performer to be welcomed for playing the new stuff is quite a rare thing. For those who have lived alongside this record during 2011 this shouldn’t be too surprising as, despite the heavy content, these are some catchy little sing songs. ‘These, these, these are the words. The words that maketh murder…’

With a third of the stage to herself, Harvey is a commanding visual presence for those with the height to see what is happening on stage. Clearly many are struggling a bit with sight lines across the flat, polished concrete floor of the repurposed wharf shed and the artist has requested there be no video screens.

Dressed head to toe in black, with a feathered head adornment rising from her hair, she holds an ornate auto-harp like a shield across her chest. While she is clearly strumming away, this is reduced to a prop by the fact that it is barely audible throughout the show. It matters little, however, as across the chasm of unused stage the musical accompaniment is more than taken care of.

It is here where my attention rests for much of the duration. In particular, Mick Harvey is an inadvertent scene stealer. Shuffling between guitar, electric bass, organ, keyboard and contraptions, he draws upon his many years of propping up some of the best in this business. The trio, that also includes long time collaborator John Parish and percussionist Jean-Marc Butty, create the shape and texture of Let England Shake for the live setting in a way that can’t be faulted. Each varies their approach to their sound craft according to the bones of the song they are adding meat to. While making use of quite a lot of keyboard, the result never takes on a digital sheen. Butty works a simple kit with sticks, brushes, felt beaters and, at points, stands to pummel away at what looks like an antique marching drum.

This is not a simple recreation, though. Many liberties are taken with the material, adding a measure of the wild and unpredictable. Mick Harvey turns out some cantankerous, over-driven bass lines on ‘The Dark Places‘ that add some garage soul not evident on the recorded version. He clearly relishes the opportunity to let loose, turning to face the audience from centre stage. Nick Cave should be making a sheepish phone call the next morning.

The band also makes some great use of the subtle looping of their collection of eclectic sampled vocal hooks. This turns the highpoint of ‘Written on the Forehead‘ into a throbbing piece of cut and paste electronic experimentation. Mick Harvey and Parish ping pong triggered samples into a welcome cacophony.

Classics from the back catalogue slot effortlessly in between smaller three song sets of Let England Shake material. The sound palette that the ensemble have developed for this show tapers down some heavy hitting tracks into more down to earth arrangements. Highlights include former fist pumper ‘C’mon Billy‘ and the electro stomp of ‘Down by the Water‘, which has PJ Harvey turn on the charm in an understated and hypnotic dance, away from the microphone. Either through happy accident or, more than likely, clever stage craft, she retreats out of a blue overhead light into complete darkness in time with the final beat of the song.

In what is clearly an artistic choice made for the presentation of the material, there is not a word of stage banter until PJ Harvey introduces the band at the conclusion of the set proper. The biggest applause is reserved for Mick and they come together in a line for an old fashioned, theatrical bow.

Keith Mason is a graduate of the Tasmanian School of Art, and this is his first piece for upstart. He currently resides and performs music in Melbourne. You can follow him on Twitter: @keith_s_mason