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The first of PJ Harvey’s two nights at Brixton Academy opened with the Dorset singer-songwriter and her nine-strong band emerging from backstage gloom in a file wearing funereally dark clothes. Two drummers led the way with a military tattoo as the musicians arranged themselves in an oval shape, a gothic encampment. The first notes they struck up were a grave blast of noise, fuelled by three horn players including Harvey on saxophone.
When she began singing, her voice rose high above the ominous musical reverberations, telling the story of an old woman living in a deserted Balkan village. The song was “Chain of Keys” from her latest album The Hope Six Demolition Project, whose tracks were inspired by Harvey’s visits to Kosovo, Afghanistan and the US. “Imagine what her eyes have seen,” she sang of the elderly villager she saw during the Kosovo trip. “We ask but she won’t let us in.”
Harvey is playing an unusual hand in The Hope Six Demolition Project. Made as a performance art piece in which she and her musicians could be watched recording its songs in the studio, it addresses war, poverty and pollution, a world out of kilter. But Harvey is a reluctant agitpopper. Shouts from the audience at the Academy met with implacable silence, only broken at the end when she introduced her band. Like the woman in “Chain of Keys”, Harvey prefers to keep her public at a distance, even when she wants to engage them in wider issues.
Her all-male backing band played their role as retainers with formidable discipline: a saxophonist’s superbly wild solo at the end of “The Ministry of Social Affairs” was a rare moment of peacockery. Otherwise the theatricality was left to Harvey, front of stage in an artfully revealing black outfit, unencumbered by her usual guitar. The sound mix was perfectly judged, from the immense bass saxophone wailing like the dawning of an awful thought in “The Ministry of Defence” to the numbed subtleties of the ambient lament “Dollar, Dollar”, which ended with a wonderfully mournful tenor sax solo.
Harvey’s vocals were dramatic, varying notes and tones expertly. At times she got carried away with performing, or being seen to be performing: the way she palmed her cheeks like Munch’s “The Scream” during “Dollar, Dollar” was pure ham. But mostly her movements were expressive, as when her imploring gesture at the end of “Rid of Me” was cast into darkness by an extinguished spotlight. She is a class act.