This review is an example of my older writing. Eventually, I hope to have all my reviews archived here. The writing style is a little different, but then I suppose we’ve all changed in the past decade. (Yes, that means I’m cringing at that use of ‘incendiary’ too.)
Gigs where there’s some difference between bands are always good, and this evening’s show at The Back Room Club was no exception. The difference in this case was that the headliner, PJ Harvey, is the queen of come-close-but-stay-at-arms-length songwriting, at once embracing and spurning, while her support, The Tremors prefer to stay up close and personal; preferably trying to get a hand down your duds in the process.
The band, fresh from the completion of their debut album – Cash Up Front, No Kissing, due out in September – took to The Back Room’s pocket-handkerchief stage and proceeded, as is known in the business, to tear shit up. Tunes that’re by now familiar to gig-goers – ‘Keep It On’ and ‘Mirrors’ – were changed beyond their recorded versions; the former being conducted by guitarist Dan Baebler in a sort of extended loose jam, while the latter was transformed into a methamphetamine-fuelled cocktail-o-hormones that just made you want to get up and dance your arse off.
Business as usual, then.
SixFtHick brother-in-bovver (and Errol Flynn look-alike) Ben Corbett left his Sensitive Side at home when he joined The Tremors to provide extra vocals for the soulful anthem ‘Lovin’ You’. Feeding off the family feel, his button-down-collar-but-bent-spine showponying added an elegant touch to the streetwise sleaze that’s The Tremors’ stock-in-trade. Eleanor Logan sang at times from a bench somewhere towards the side of the room, on occasion, while the rest of the band attempted to play on an unfeasibly packed stage – the one-two punch of current radio-played ‘Bad Teenage Poetry’ almost seemed too much for the group to contain. Falling off seemed a constant risk, but the dynamic performance always seemed to just avoid falling apart, in the most fabulous way.
The fleshed-out incarnation of The Tremors – stand-in bassists and keyboardists made an appearance this evening – is a dangerous beast, and while they didn’t exactly fit the tone of the headliner, they put in a performance that was all turkey-strut and arse-shake. White boots and a continued mission to abuse venue furniture in as many ways as possible informed the performance, and certainly surprised punters who’d expected to see something a bit more singer-songwriterly supporting Harvey. Leaving the stage, there wasn’t anyone in the room who hadn’t been impressed with the energy displayed. A rude wake-up for some, but captivating showmanship nonetheless.
(It’s worth noting that between acts, there was a pretty unfortunate audio faux pas. Given Harvey’s rocky relationship history, why did the sound guy decide that exploring Nick Cave’s canon was a bit of a shrewd move? Eyebrows around the venue were raised, as roadies signalled from the stage to lose the Prince of Darkness’s work. Clever? Hmm. Still, at least they didn’t play ‘Henry Lee’.)
Next, it was time for PJ Harvey. The room – though the gig had been sold out – remained less crowded than expected, and enabled those who wanted to get up close to the songwriter to easily manoeuvre to the front. Unfortunately, this included a blond Jesus look-alike who was tripping off his nut and spent most of the performance attempting to get closer by using a combination of stealth and slamming into female punters, and a guy for whom headbanging – even during between-song banter – was more important than anything else.
Bedecked in two mutilated versions of her own red tour t-shirt, PJ took the stage and launched into the devilish riff of ‘I Think I’m A Mother’. It was on. The dark baggage of the singer’s tunes was riffled through, and a mixture of despair-larded songs – with a sprinkling of enthusiastic, hopeful musical moments – were led out into the light. The joyfully truculent ‘Who The Fuck?’ appeared early, while the eroticism of ‘The Letter’ still made itself felt, even though the singer was larking about and dancing robot-style during its delivery.
Let’s face it: PJ could’ve sung the words from a cereal box this evening and had the crowd eat it up. But don’t let that suggestion undermine the strength of the performance. As characteristic of music journo hyperbole as it may sound, people were weeping at this gig, such was its power. Whether it was due to the more perversely claustrophobic feeling induced by some of the set’s cloying numbers – songs that wouldn’t have worked in the impersonal spaces that Harvey and her band would normally play – or due to the fact that the crowd seemed to realise exactly how special this evening’s show appeared to be to the headliner herself is a matter of debate. But there’s something undeniably joyous about seeing people at a gig get so much release, so much satisfaction from the performer-audience interaction. Hell, when the star of the show tells you how much she likes your town, and then suggests that she stays at your house the next time she holidays there – all said without the requisite live-album distancing often utilised by performers – it’s unsurprising that the us-and-them wall crumbles. It’s thrilling when it does.
The polyrhythmic playing of Rob Ellis – as much as the off-the-wall (literally) slashed playing of guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (a sometime player with John Frusciante) or the legs-splayed deep basslines of Dingo (who also plays with The Fall) – was what governed this evening’s performance. Strong, thudding beats delineated, as much as the spare guitar lines of Harvey’s songs – unsurprising given how far back the connection between the two goes. Older tunes – ‘Fountain’ included – mixed in with newer releases and combined to create a dark atmosphere, but one that always felt assured. There were no missteps – just excitement and a selection of songs that didn’t necessarily embrace the most popular tunes in the writer’s canon.
An example? ‘My Beautiful Leah’, played with the shaven-headed skinsman – who bore the brunt of Phil Collins hairstyle joking through the night – plucked from his kit and installed at the front of the stage. Manipulating with some small, electronic boxes, Ellis called forth squelching sounds and evil tones. A tune that doesn’t seem to get much of an outing made much more impact live than it ever has on record, becoming crucially voyeuristic, with a pall of dread attached – a feeling that pervaded many of this evening’s tunes, particularly the aptly-named ‘Taut’, the only song from the more overtly experimental Dance Hall At Louse Hall to make an appearance.
Following ‘Leah’ came a special guest. Making an appearance – just as he had at the previous night’s Splendour In The Grass Performance – was Mick Harvey, or “cousin Mick” as Polly jokingly introduced him. The rest of the band, save for the two Harveys and Ellis – left the stage and as a three-piece, ripped through incendiary versions of two primal PJ tunes – ‘Me Jane’ and ‘Man-Size’. The crowd – already intensely receptive to what was going on onstage – broke into furious dancing as Mick Harvey’s deep-bass thrumming hit every abdomen. An anarchic celebration of the power and spikiness of Polly’s earlier work, the two songs were the most rough-and-ready of the night – if you discount the broken-string version of ‘Plants And Rags’ that had Harvey grinning and labelling it as “the strangest version of that song we’ve ever played” – yet they possessed some form of performance magic that captivated.
The rest of the band returned – and Mick Harvey left – to play the set’s remainder. Launching more towards darkness than ever – ‘Taut’ and ‘Harder’ being highlights – they brought the evening proper to a held-breath close with ‘The Darker Days Of Me & Him’. The encore, which began with the widescreen glamour of ‘Big Exit’, detoured into discomfort by its end, leaving the crowd with the furrowed-brow classic ‘Is This Desire?’ to take home with them. Certainly, this was no greatest hits show – but that’s exactly why it seemed more personal. This was PJ Harvey playing, more than ever, what she wanted to play.
With the band departing for a second time – but not before Harvey had returned to the stage to carefully gather up a fan’s letter and some flowers that’d been handed her earlier in the show – the curtains were closed across the stage, indicating the close of the night. Given the intimacy of the venue, the good-natured demeanour of the show’s star, and the sheer joy that the band seemed to take in this performance, it’s tempting to say that this gig will go down as the definitive PJ Harvey performance in Australia. Previously, there’s been cancelled tours, sets played while the artist seemed to be in utter distraction, and, generally, big venue or festival performances that seemed to rob the material of its necessary intimacy. The path’s been hard for those for who it’s the personal, the transformational narrative aspect of Harvey that pulls them in. But tonight, those lucky enough to get into the Back Room Club were repaid tenfold for their faith. The performance was mesmerising; the jubilation taken by Harvey in playing her songs to such a small audience palpable and utterly disarming.
Gig of the year? Make that plural.
I Think I’m A Mother; Who The Fuck?; The Letter; Dress; Shame; Fountain; A Place Called Home; Plants & Rags; Uh Huh Her; Pocket Knife; My Beautiful Leah; Me Jane (with Mick Harvey); Man-Size (with Mick Harvey); Taut; Harder; Cat On The Wall; The Darker Days Of Me & Him.
Big Exit; The Life And Death Of Mr. Badman Badmouth; Is This Desire?
Originally published at FasterLouder on August 22, 2004.