PJ Harvey: ICC Sydney Theatre, Jan 22 2017

I suppose it’s the case that there’s no such thing as a bad PJ Harvey show. But it could be that there’s such a thing as an indifferent one. One that hits the right notes, but doesn’t have the emotional resonance you’d expect.

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That was the case this evening. It wasn’t phoned in – not by any measure – but there was something curiously distancing about this evening’s show. 

I know I’m in a minority – there’s been glowing tributes elsewhere else, it seems – but for me, this evening’s show wasn’t as good as those I’d seen in the past.

Supporters Xylouris White turned in their usual high-energy, arms-and-hair mad bastard set. Whenever I see these guys play, I am entranced by the effort of the sets – I could watch Jim White play drums all fucking day, because the man is an unpredictable vehicle for percussive chiaroscuro, whose skills become more unfathomable the more my own knowledge of drumming increases – but also aware that I have no idea what’s going on.

Because it’s not for me. None of what’s on stage – other than the fact of its occurrence at a venue I’m inside – is for me.

I think this is why XY seems to be a rarity: a heartfelt project who would, I think, play the same whether there was a crowd there or not. The interplay between White’s kit and George Xylouris’s Cretan lute (and vocals) is personal, reflexive. It’s two shambolic dudes making music that tickles their fancies, not yours, and the joy of seeing them is the joy of observing that shared delight unfold.

(It was during the lights-up break between sets that I became aware of the two harpies behind me, voices set to permanent foghorn mode. A drill din you couldn’t ignore. They talked through the entirety of PJ Harvey’s set, regaling each other with anecdotes about That Time I Partied With The Hey Hey It’s Saturday Crew, That Time I Got Kicked Out Of A Bon Jovi Concert For Dancing On A Table, How Little Money Polly Must Be Making From This Tour Because She Has To Pay For Everything And Merch Isn’t The Seller It Used To Be, Why Your Mum Is So Sad and other hits from the self-involved focal point of the universe.

They ignored all shooshing, and talked louder than the band. Why they’d come, fuck knows. Remarks about how the soundo hadn’t made the Loud Cunts quite prevalent enough in the mix worked a little – but not for long. THEY COULD BE HEARD OVER AMPLIFIED, ATONAL SAXOPHONE RUMBLINGS. Why do these fuckers come to gigs?)

Next, PJ Harvey.

I had been apprehensive when I bought a ticket to the show. I bought on the strength of reports and video from the PJH tours I’d missed in previous years, particularly the one supporting White Chalk. I didn’t think The Hope Six Demolition Project was a great album – it certainly pales to its predecessor Let England Shake – and had seen the setlist had remained fixed for most of the tour thus far.

For a look at what it the show was like, check out the following video.

Watch the whole thing and you’ll pretty much have seen the Sydney show. I’m serious. Because that setlist, those movements? Practically identical to what we saw in Sydney.

(In fact, that may be a more personal view: the video provides much more in the way of close-up visuals, nuance lost from a distance.)

I understand why this is, I think. The performance was less a gig, and more, well, a performance. It was choreographed, directed. Walls – a memory, it seemed, of the fascist architecture of the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana – went up, movements were stylised. Instrument and position changes were seamless, and for that to occur one needs to cleave to a directed ideal. As her career has progressed, Harvey has moved more into the realm of performance, which fits well with the deep characterisations of her songwriting. It’s particularly germane to this most recent clutch of songs, featuring bureaucratic destruction, a sort of musical totalitarian portrait conducted in a Panopticon of the artist’s own making.

That’s not to say some of the choices were bad: indeed, it felt there was a line through the show, a focal point pulling us forward. End-of-song silences were held for moments longer than usual, to make a point. Walk-ons and walk-offs were theatrical, a ragged band of suited protestors circling, a Salvation Army band of woe. It was polished, but therein lies the problem: polish can bring with it the air of inflexibility, of sterility, and that’s what I felt this evening.

(Having said that, it might be interesting to see this performance in a much smaller venue: I think a lot of the nuance is lost in arena-scale venues. For all its grand themes, this music is intensely personal.)

Harvey herself played only saxophone, not guitar as per previous tours. While she is undoubtedly the focus of the show, she also would relinquish the spotlight to stand in line with horn players during instrumental interludes. The band – a mix of recent players and long-time collaborators (Mick Harvey and John Parish probably the longest-serving) – was very, very strong, and it’s a credit to their performance that I found the newer songs more intriguing in a live setting than they’ve ever appeared on record. There was a danger in their playing, which seemed less focused on guitar, that served the music well. Indeed, the brass-heavy, oddly-configured dual-drumkit setup conveyed more Waitsian menace than one would expect.

The setlist leaned heavily on The Hope Six Demolition Project and Let England Shake, with only a couple of tunes – ‘Down By The Water’, ’50ft Queenie’ and  ‘To Bring You My Love’ predating the dyad lifted from White Chalk. The material from Let England Shake seemed stronger than the more recent album, but when played live, the perverse music hall history that’s part of the tunes’ DNA comes to the fore. It’s remarkable how much more interesting the songs appeared in this setting, flaws and all.

The reserve loosened a little in the last brace of songs and in the encore – which wheeled out PJ’s cover of Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and the title track from Is This Desire? – but I was still left with a weird feeling of disconnection. It didn’t feel good. I’d seen PJ Harvey play before, and felt engrossed – this evening I felt like an observer, not a participant. As if the band were performing to be observed, measured and aware rather than gigging for their lives. It had been a good show, yes, but it was more theatrical performance than rock show, and I think if I’d been calibrated accordingly, I would have enjoyed it much more.

It’s just frustrating to have felt knocked out by the performer, previously, and not to feel that once more. I think it’s an offshoot of being hidebound to order, but if that’s what fits the project, then the problem is likely with me, not the players.

There were teething problems with the venue this evening, too: getting in takes a lot longer than imagined, and while staff are eager there’s the sense that they don’t really know where to send you. Escalators are broken, announcements are faltering and mistake-laden. And crucially, once you’re let inside the seating area, you’re left to your own devices.

In a venue that’s been established for years, this isn’t a big deal. But showing punters into a cavernous pit of blackness with minimal signage and next to zero lighting, it’s a mistake. Once the house lights are down, there’s barely enough light over the row letters to see where you’re going. There certainly isn’t any way to see your seat number. I suppose this could lead to unexpected romantic exchanges in the shadowy rows, but I couldn’t help feel that I was going to fall into a crevasse the whole time. For less able-bodied patrons than I, this is a real problem – even with torches, people were having trouble getting to where they needed to be.

(The seat pitch also seems to encourage DVT: it’s so near that my bung knee was absolutely screaming after about 20 minutes. Not good.)

At the end of the show, we’re shepherded out the fire exits. Too bad if you were going to buy merch after the gig: that shit’s downstairs, and you’re on the street.

On the other hand, the sound of the place isn’t bad – though that’s probably the least you could expect from a new, custom-spec PA.

Did my experience of the venue colour the show? I don’t think so – the sight lines were reasonable, and the sound good. But I found it hard to square this very considered performance – enjoyable as it was – with the show I’d seen in 2004. There, there was the sense of chance, of abandon that was missing from this evening’s set.

Tonight’s band was probably better than the one which played Byron Bay all those years ago, no doubt. I just don’t think they were having as much fun.

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