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PJ Harvey & John Parish – Anson Rooms, Bristol 18/04/09

23 April 2009, 12:00 | Written by The Line of Best Fit

There’s a terrifying stillness about PJ Harvey. At the end of each song, it’s as if a dark shadow has imprisoned her in celluloid, before the shutter release of John Parish’s tremendous guitar again liberates her diabolical wide-eyed rapture, gesticulating and wild in eldritch white. The three straitjacket-esque straps around her chiffon-swathed legs cannot contain her, as black heels occluding alabaster ankles dance in tongues around the defenceless boards of the Anson Rooms

If this all sounds a little overblown, it’s because there aren’t words nuanced or physical enough to express the intense bliss evoked this evening. Yeah, we could steal some of Polly and John’s own, like the sumptuous, “you move me, like music” from ‘Rope Bridge Crossing’ off Dance Hall at Louse Point, but they wouldn’t be nearly as devastating as when emitted from red lips to lie on the nail bed of Parish’s awkward flinching guitar, and we’re no cuckoo.

Playing in support of their second album together in 13 years, PJ, John and their regular band of collaborators might look foreboding in their respective ghostly moll and gangster ensembles, but, just as on record, tonight’s performance is the sight of two old friends having fun, dismissing the common perception of them as serious artistes drowning in the gravitas of their craft. Single ‘Black Hearted Love’ is all visceral guitar and silky, butter-wouldn’t-melt rhetoric that’s the perfect contrast to wonderful surprise support act Howe Gelb’s (of Giant Sand) gravelly acoustic drawl, and snaps into ‘Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen’, whereby Harvey’s meticulously controlled voice hops from craggy wails to staccato counting, a cliff top siren call and girlish hiccoughing. The five of them lead an exquisitely balanced set, dipping into ‘The Soldier’, whose words hang like a tangled marionette over Parish’s childlike yet demented ukulele.

Despite unabashed dancing, inquisitive birdlike looks to John on her left, and a neat red grin a million miles from the Joker-ish make-up of her To Bring You My Love era, at this stage it’s still hard to believe that this almost translucent woman has either the dint or desire to let forth the raw whoops of their oeuvre’s more scabrous works. However, with ‘Taut’, Harvey inflicts mirth and mild apprehension upon the audience as she spits “Even the son of God had to die my darlin’” like Pazuzu by way of Dorset, but curtails the outburst before embodying madness that’d see Mr Rochester hunting out the ladder to the attic hatch.

The only downside to letting PJ Harvey mesmerize you into forgetting that you’re stood in the dingy Anson Rooms (which have all the charm of a rotting grammar school gymnasium) is that it’s sometimes hard to remember to snap out of it to appreciate the astounding work of her dapper bandmates. In matching trilbies and suits (and pianist, bassist and guitarist Eric Drew Feldman’s shiny red brogues deserve a mention too), they look as though they’ve just stepped out of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Miller’s Crossing’, and sound just as ominous.

“I have another story to tell you,” says Harvey, polite as a school mistress, before wreaking prurient havoc on the crowd with ‘A Woman A Man Walked By’ – every time she roars “I want his fucking ass!”, she jerks her own derriere, howling like a castrated werewolf, and dancing through John and Giovanni’s exorcism of a guitar solo with vigour that belies her maraca-induced shoulder injury.

The night seems fleeting, and the final song comes all too soon. After a thirteen year break between albums, it’ll most likely be at least as long again, if ever, before the next one; a thought as disquieting as the shadowy stillness that engulfs the rocking chair creak of ‘April’

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