PJ Harvey @ Playhouse, Edinburgh, 7 Aug

Live Review by Katie Hawthorne | 09 Aug 2017

Rollicking marching drums announce PJ Harvey’s otherwise understated arrival. When she takes the stage flanked by a nine-piece band, uniformly dressed in black, it takes a second to spot her. Then Dorset’s rebel daughter strides to the front, sax in hand like a weapon, draped in crepe like a gothic, elvish queen, and there’s no doubt that the Playhouse is holding court to rock royalty.

The near two-hour set centers around Harvey’s album The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016) – a record and art project which saw the musician tour Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC to document poverty, war and injustice – but still crams in over twenty years of stone cold hits. Staggering brass and bone-crunching drums are expertly wielded, and the band, including long-term collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, are a worthy counterpoint to Harvey's staggering voice.

Yet with no support slot and a reluctantly seated audience, a mammoth trio of opening songs – Chain of Keys, Ministry of Defence and Community of Hope – are so precisely presented that it feels a touch clinical. It’s not until Harvey's eerie, spine-tingling accusation of Oh America, Oh England from 2011's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake that the air turns truly electric. Her folkloric alarm bells ring as vividly as ever, and a deeper dip into the back catalogue turns out essential, slow burning tracks from 2007’s witchy White Chalk.

Then the lights begin to burn, and an outrageous sax solo bleeds into 50 Ft Queenie. The filthy 90s anthem is a jaw-dropping, swaggering victory, and it’s a wonder the Playhouse can contain her. It’s a wonder the room doesn’t rip up their seats. “Force ten hurricane”, indeed. Equally impolite renditions of Down by the Water and To Bring You My Love are received with total rapture. Two standing ovations are eventually rewarded by an encore, and the night fades out with a haunting, a cappella version of The River, as the band close in around Polly Jean and wave goodbye to three storeys of breathless fans.

Part of Edinburgh International Festival 2017