THE BEGINNING

The first big show on the ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ tour sees Polly Harvey evolve once again – this time mixing old and new in enthralling fashion.

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Transformation has always been the fundamental essence of PJ Harvey’s musical trajectory: with every new album usually comes a new instrument she’s mastered, a fresh aesthetic and an altered musical landscape. The essential consistency of her work is underpinned by those aspects of change, of unpredictability and a persistent sense of evolution. With her latest record ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’, Harvey made what felt like her first sequel album. The looming shadow of ‘Let England Shake’ felt ever present but the lyrical grace, subtlety and power of ‘Let England Shake’ was replaced by a more direct, heavy handed and blunt force, whilst the music – despite the explorations in saxophone shaping the new record – operated within a similar tone and stylistic milieu.

However, as soon as Harvey and her band step out onto the stage, led almost procession-like with military-fire thwack of large drums, the set-up and music feels new. Any defined sense of sonic evolution that may have felt lacking from the new material on record, comes sharply into focus once on stage. ‘Chain of Keys’ opens the set that features heavily around the new record.

With the band all stood in line at the front of the stage, blasts of saxophone charge and hum through the night whilst Harvey’s voice positively soars, it sounding as powerful as it does beautiful. Harvey plays a significant amount of the set instrument-free, using her spare hands to contort shapes in carefully choreographed, yet seamlessly fluid, movements. Her hands prick out and twist as she dances and around the microphone stand, her movements really coming to life as she becomes increasingly animated, especially through a rousing ‘Community of Hope’.

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The juxtaposition of sounds and lyrics is a startling one. The heavy presence of the saxophone instills a swing to the music, a driven groove that seems at odds, almost in an intentionally illustrative manner, with the bleak, brutal images that come firing from Harvey’s mouth. There’s an unease and potently troubling marriage between the huge singalong choruses and what it involves singing about. These almost feel like war anthems, anthems of doom and despair, songs that are screaming at the world in exasperated despondency and fiery, livid anger. The material from ‘Let England Shake’ still sounds towering, the weight and immense beauty of them losing none of their clout over the five year period since their introduction to the world, cementing a deeply political period in Harvey’s oeuvre. The title track from ‘Let England Shake’ takes on a slightly new form, the intro is long and deceptive and when the tracks begins it erupts from a place nobody expected. Harvey’s vocal intonations are twisted and altered, she applies a creeping, almost sinister tone to them as she wraps herself over the microphone.

The set draws on the odd older number, ones you may expect and that share a similar tonal delivery, utilising the deeply rhythmic and impeccably tight band she has. ‘When Under Ether’ from ‘White Chalk’ is simply stunning and the delicate and subtle musical refrain chugs along to let Harvey’s vocals command not only the song but the whole festival site. Intimacy is not synonymous with open air festivals with tens of thousands of people but Harvey’s voice has the power to transform the environment into what feels like a headphone listen. ‘50ft Queenie’ comes a real surprise in the set and explodes with vitality and punch when it comes. Harvey’s intense shrieks matched by the brutal assault of her electric guitar, whilst drums clatter and pound manically and there’s a sense of fierce venom in the delivery.

‘Down by the Water’ feels monumental in scope and once again there’s an underlying groove the group have that moves the song in swings and swoops. ‘To Bring You My Love’ is transformed into almost sludge rock, slow heavy clangs of the guitar reverberate and feel monolithic in their stature. It’s boiled down to an elongated, groggy and menacing version. It bubbles with a foreboding sense of dread and Harvey digs low to get a growl in her voice that adds an altogether unexplored dimension to the song.

The band form a strong formation line along the stage once more and bow out the evening in uniformed grace. To have questioned PJ Harvey’s musical evolution feels beyond foolish by the time they leave the stage, with every bit of the performance feeling like a fusion of new births and evolved pasts.

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