PJ Harvey has mastered the art of expressing vulnerability without betraying much emotion. It’s an exceedingly difficult trick, but she pulled it off for nearly the entire duration of her House of Blues concert on Monday. She acknowledged the audience exactly four times over the course of 90 minutes, the first instance only arriving four songs before the show’s end. And her vocals never pushed an inch for feeling, leaving that for the instruments and the lyrics.
But there was never a sense of Harvey maintaining a distance from her material or the emotional content bound within it. Instead, she was restrainedly dramatic, not quite animated but making every movement count. She performed the chilling, still “When Under Ether” with her arms hanging by her side as she stared forward, motionless save for minute turns of her head when addressing the imaginary woman by her side. Her open-throated vocal on the nearly glacial “Dollar, Dollar,” meanwhile, was full of warm-hearted empathy.
That song featured a graceful saxophone solo by Terry Edwards, who also went chaotic and discordant in “The Ministry of Social Affairs” while the rest of the band played as if falling deeper and deeper into the pit. The low honk of three saxophones (Harvey’s instrument of choice when she needed one) was one of three sounds that defined the music, alongside the thwacking sizzle of a snare drum (also multiplied several times over) and the low, measured unison vocals that turned her all-male band into something resembling a workmen-ghost chorus.
Harvey repeatedly concentrated those elements into a point of almost unbearable power. The whole band hammered the same note five times for “The Ministry of Defence,” with so much space left afterward that the song sliced with an impact only hinted at on the recording. With at least three musicians picking up shakers, an awesomely frenzied “50ft Queenie” came off like unhinged Bo Diddley. And twangy guitar and crepuscular keys helped “The Orange Monkey” slowly inch from darkness to light at the very end of the verse, at which point it immediately reset.
Harvey sometimes did the same, occasionally retreating to the back line with the others, as she did during the clatter and churn and blat of “The Wheel.” The opposite occurred on the set-closing “River Anacostia,” as one by one her band dropped their instruments and slowly moved forward to sing “Wade in the Water.” The last instrument standing was a drum.
At House Of Blues, MondayMarc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @spacecitymarc