PJ Harvey @ Barrowlands, Glasgow, 26 Sep
PJ Harvey’s perpetual strive for unpredictability shows its face once more as she welcomes the eager crowd of Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom into the ambitious, archaic world of her new album – I Inside the Old Year Dying
When the doors open, diehards rush the front row and are met with a beguiling black backdrop resembling the cracked leather of an old sofa. A spotlight rests on a rustic wooden table at the back of the stage, adorned with pitchers of lemon water, steaming cups of tea and a vase, from which protrudes the lone twig pictured on the cover of I Inside the Old Year Dying. This enchanting display is the work of award-winning set designer Rae Smith, whose moody theatrical stylings line up perfectly with the whimsical themes PJ Harvey dares to explore on her latest artistic venture.
Tinny bells clang discordantly as Harvey enters in a chalky dress, smiling as she waits for the thunderous applause to pass. She turns to face drummer Jean-Marc Butty as he settles into the soft groove of Prayer at the Gate. Stepping into the blinding spotlight, Harvey completely stupefies the restless audience as she moves in slow motion and lets out the song’s eerie vocal hook. Noisy children squeal through the speakers while Harvey stomps around like a toddler, throwing her hands out to the audience and to the other musicians on stage. She sits down and takes a sip of tea as everything fades to black.
Sunlight descends on her head and she tosses it back, holding this position just long enough to make the crowd uneasy before picking up her dress and swishing into The Nether-edge. Her crisp voice pierces through the dense atmosphere of each track, delivering each line with intense purpose and conviction. The backdrop is lit up from behind with an ominous blue, and now it seems less like thirsty leather and more like the fissured drought land of Death Valley at dusk. Alien birdsong soars overhead as Harvey dons her iconic Gibson Firebird and maintains an arresting thousand-yard stare. She sits at a church pew and, after crooning out the final notes of A Noiseless Noise into the heavenly light, disappears into the backstage shadows.
Image: PJ Harvey @ Barrowlands, Glasgow, 26 Sep by Hels Millington
Violinist James Johnston and synth player Giovanni Ferrario step forward with John Parish and Butty (who now taps away at a marching band snare) for a triumphant performance of The Colour of the Earth, marking the end of the conceptual first half of the show and the beginning of the greatest hits.
Harvey returns with The Glorious Land, which sees a stark shift in the behaviour of the crowd who wake from their hypnotic stupor and come alive with the dancing plague. She plucks a glistening autoharp on The Words That Maketh Murder, flexing her multi-instrumentalist muscles with a loveable pomp. The backdrop twinkles like the ocean’s surface, forming flowing tributaries as she whispers the infectious refrain of her 1995 hit Down by the Water: 'Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water / Come back here, man, give me my daughter'. Harvey is a giant, towering over her man-size subjects and rattling their rib-cages with her colossal talent.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” Harvey says as her crew rearrange the furniture in a semicircle for the encore. “We love being in your wonderful city.” The band gather round like a ragtag group of campfire storytellers to debut their moving cover of Dark Eyes by Bob Dylan. Harvey’s love of the song is evident in her hearty harmonica playing, which lingers on as she waves goodbye and the beaten floor of the ballroom is jackhammered by a thousand stomping feet.