I’m not a PJ Harvey obsessive, but I am a gig-going obsessive. There are plenty of artists I’ve seen fifteen times or more, and PJH is one of them. So when I was asked to write a piece about a favourite woman artist, my response wasn’t to delve into speculative analysis of PJ Harvey’s lyrics, relationships or preoccupations, but to try and remember every time I’ve seen her perform. For some reason, every occasion has been eventful in some mad way or other. Delving through the archives, I have found a few reviews from over the years, which I have also included.
14 December 1989
Railway Inn, Winchester
The first time I ever saw her was at a gig I promoted myself, at the Railway in Winchester. Back then, the venue was a skittle alley at the rear of the venue and you had to bring in the PA. The band was Automatic Dlamini, previously a three-piece from Yeovil. Now they had suddenly become a quintet and one of the band was a skinny girl with a big semi-acoustic guitar. She mainly lurked at the back of the stage but twice came forward to sing lead on her own songs. There were only about twenty people there but I remember my friend Paul nudged me and asked, “What is it about that girl?” “I don’t know”, I replied, “but if I wasn’t otherwise occupied, I’d ask her if she’d like a manager.” The only conclusion was that she had that “something” which marks out a star, and that it was noticeable even then.
11 January 1990
Joiners Arms, Southampton
A couple of weeks later, the band was back, this time at the Joiners in Southampton. I took along my newly-acquired second-hand video camera. This was a mind-bogglingly good performance and was as eventful as usual. Walking backwards to try and get a wider angle, I inadvertently leant against the bar of the emergency exit, which burst open, leaving me lying on my back like a beached whale in the alley beside the pub. The promoter, mindful of the noise and the neighbours, sprang across and slammed the door shut, unaware of my predicament. If it hadn’t been for the felt-tip mark on my hand, I’d have had to pay again in order to get back in.
21 December 1991
Joiners Arms, Southampton
The next time I heard of Polly Harvey was in a routine phone call to the Joiners, to arrange tickets for a gig by the West Country band the Family Cat.
“As you know, PJ Harvey is supporting.”
“You know, the girl from Automatic Dlamini. She’s got her own band now.”
I didn’t know. Things had moved on so fast. The industry frenzy was already beginning, the first single was already out, and most people in attendance that evening were there for the support band. Again, I had good reason to remember that night, not just because of the breathtakingly good performance by the tiny, leather jacketed, black-bunned figure fronting the power trio on stage, but also because I was very nearly killed. The Joiners was being renovated and there was a scaffolding tower rigged up in the hall to enable the builders to reach the ceiling. As the dancing reached a crescendo during “Sheela-Na-Gig”, one of the heavy iron bolts which hold bits of scaffolding together rolled off the platform and missed my cranium by a millimetre. After the show, my wife engaged drummer Rob Ellis in conversation about his newly-born baby, and we cooed over some photos. Very rock and roll. One thing was certain, though: we were dealing with a truly unique and amazing artist.
27 May 1991
28 May 1991
Two gigs on successive nights? Here’s the story:
Having been at the Portsmouth concert, I was desperate to go to the Bristol show, not least because I wanted to hand out flyers advertising the new Automatic Dlamini album, which featured Polly. Family responsibility, however, really did mean that it wasn’t fair to go out two nights running. We planned to spend the day at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, but it rained so heavily that we were about to head for home.
“Of course,” I said to Birgit, “we could go and see PJ Harvey in Bristol.”
“Hmm … How far away is Bristol?”
“Oh, it’s er, quite near.”
Three hours later, I had to pacify them all by agreeing to put them up in a posh hotel while I headed to the Bier Keller. Luckily, the Holiday Inn was being renovated and did us a cheap deal.
FROM “SOUND INFO” MAGAZINE:
A balmy evening on the sea front at Southsea, and many, many people have come to see whether it’s true what they say about PJ Harvey.
Unceremoniously, they are on stage. Robert Ellis, a drummer who is in the process of redefining the art, is singing in an odd sort of falsetto in counterpoint to the instantly riveting Polly. It’s a song that represents the band well: It’s challenging but not intimidating, unconventional but not inaccessible. Straight on into “O Stella” and a particular note is the crispness and clarity of the sound in this most difficult of halls. Three or four songs into the set, the ice is broken in the simplest of ways: Polly, not given to conventional forms of Rock & Roll communication, gets drawn into a conversation with someone in the front row, who asks her how she’s feeling. In the most natural way possible, Polly finds herself actually talking, off mike, about how her day has gone. The audience melts, the tension snaps, both band and audience are just able to roll with this most meticulously organised but scrupulously honest music.
Polly is a real person. The band are real people. This isn’t show business and there’s nothing on display which isn’t utterly genuine. This, in the media’s rush to fit this unquestionably square peg into its required round hole, is what has been missed. in praising Polly’s achievements, there’s a definite implication that it’s all a bit surprising considering she’s not a bloke. The constant emphasis on the feminist aspect of her work is itself an act of sexism. Nobody has come near to describing the real magic, which is that, in a business which is all about performing, Polly is not putting on an act. Nobody’s taught her the notion of eye contact or the importance of a stage show. Nobody’s taught her or the others in the band what to write about or how to do it. The intense interest in PJ Harvey is there precisely because the idea of interest creation has never entered their heads.
This is the band in the best of health and, above all, only just beginning. Already there are at least four new top quality songs in the set that aren’t on the album. For a moment, it seems they won’t be doing the demanded encore. That would be wholly appropriate, for what they do is say: Here we are, this is what we do. Show business conventions have no relevance. In the event, they come back to perform the satisfyingly symmetrical “Water” but decline to milk the applause. Tomorrow is another night.
And what a night! Bristol is home ground and friends and family abound in the wringing wet and hopelessly overcrowded Bierkeller. The almost graspable love in the air produces a performance of even greater intensity. Polly’s old band Automatic Dlamini are also playing this time and there’s much emotional embracing going on. The feeling from the audience is one of total commitment, total support and above all, excitement that PJ Harvey are taking over the world and doing it on their own terms.
Intelligence. Integrity. Charm. Humanity. Emotion. Inventiveness. Courage. Optimism. Honesty. And this is pop music. I’ve seldom experienced anything so uplifting.
27 June 1991
The trio was on early in the afternoon on what was then called the NME stage. I remember that it was my children’s first exposure to the phenomenon of crowd surfing and their little eyes stood out on stalks.
22 May 1992
FROM “SOUND INFO” MAGAZINE:
Pure excitement coursing through the veins. grinning dippily at complete strangers. Hugging people you’d normally only shake hands with. Screaming for encores and only feeling embarrassed afterwards. These are elements of that rare phenomenon, the truly magic gig. And this was one.
From the start it was clear that this marathon of an evening was going to be a challenging affair. There is a good reason for the rarity of rock events at the Guildhall, and the reason is its untamed acoustic qualities. Yeovil three-piece Gutless, being given the break of a lifetime, had brought along Dick Bullivant, producer of the first P.J. Harvey album, to sort out their sound. Unwisely and uncharacteristically, he chose to approach the problem by whacking everything up to brain-frying volume. In a masochistic way, it was sort of impressive. The band’s gimmick is to roar very loudly at various points in each song. The effect was of being trampled by a herd of raging bull elephants. The total absence of any light or shade made it impossible to appreciate Gutless; nevertheless, their record may well be worth checking out. Meanwhile, even the most hardened gig-goers were to be seen reaching for the cotton wool.
Gallon Drunk also suffered from a (different) power-crazy soundman. The night before, they had played a blinder on Jools Holland’s TV show and expectations were soaring. Their new album, too, sees them moving on fast from their rockabilly roots into an eclectic area of true sophistication, full of atmosphere. The place to see them would be as headliners in a nightclub, because here the muzzy volume merely made every song sound the same. A pity, because they ooze character and have, in James Johnson, a true star in their midst.
The explanation for all this must have been good old rock and roll politics, because the headliners immediately had a perfect sound mix. Down went the volume, up went the clarity and definition, snap, crackle and pop went the mix and P.J. Harvey were in a perfect position to fulfil everyone’s wildest dreams.
It’s been a pleasure indeed to see such enormous success coming to a bunch of people who so richly deserve it simply for being good. P.J. Harvey have created their own audience and have thus given the good hypers of Island Records the perfect subject on which to get to work. Nobody resents seeing the papers bursting with grovelling articles about this band because the press has come to the band rather than the other way round. Success has been achieved on their own terms and is based on sheer excellence and intelligence.
Fans of old were thrilled that the set still started with “Rid Of Me” (one of the most original songs this generation is likely to hear) and includes “Water”, and “Sheela-na-Gig”, show stoppers both. Of the newer songs, “Yuri G” stands out by virtue of its catchiness, while “50 Foot Queenie” is over before you can blink. While nothing could rival the Fall’s brilliant cover of “Lost In Music” (heard in Portsmouth earlier in the week) PJH do a good line in reconstituted cover versions· too: “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Wang Dang Doodle”.
The trio format of P.J. Harvey is not long for this world, but in the meantime, the musicianship is inspiring. Polly’s guitar playing, seemingly so casual, is actually a work of highly-crafted precision, and Robert Ellis makes all drummer jokes redundant. His crucially unique approach to backing vocals has also rewritten the book on such matters. Bassist Steven Vaughan, looking more and more like something out of Spy Vs. Spy, is the perfect foil for Polly’s increasingly deranged jumble-sale chic. We wanted Polly to take over the world and she’s done it. Now see what she does for an encore.
11 March 1995
Shepherds Bush Empire
Tricky supported at this show but I had a horrible experience. At the after-show reception, I approached some members of a band called Breed, whom I had seen, and liked, at the Joiners Arms, but the drummer was incredibly obnoxious, taking the piss out of me because of my age. This hateful person later joined Placebo, a band so terrible that he fitted in perfectly.
11 May 1995
My friend David was driving, but, having heard about road works on the M3, he decided to take an alternative route. In a moment of absent-mindedness, we got ourselves onto the M4, heading towards Bristol rather than London, with thirty-odd miles before the next exit. We only just made the show, and afterwards I was completely star struck by finding myself standing next to Jarvis Cocker.
24 June 1995
This was where the band, promoting To Bring You My Love, were on the main stage in the afternoon and Polly caused a sensation by wearing a pink catsuit and thumping the stage with a stick during Goodnight Irene. I think this may be the best PJH show I have ever seen. I’ve found a video clip, so see what you think:
5 October 1996
The Cavity, Bridport
Polly and John Parish made an album together called “Dance Hall At Louse Point”. They did a few shows to promote it, for which they warmed up in a tiny wine bar called The Cavity (wittily situated below a dentist’s surgery) in Bridport. We decided to make this a family day out, and booked ourselves into Fawlty Towers-style hotel called The Bull (now a “boutique hotel”) directly opposite the Cavity. First, we went for a walk at Eype, a secret, mystical pebbly beach nearby, and then, tired from the fresh air, all four of us fell asleep in the hotel room. We were woken from our slumbers in late afternoon by the strains of “Jesus, save me … “, wafting across the road from the sound check at enormous volume, stopping the shoppers on the market in their tracks. Magical.
Thousands of people would have given anything to have been there, and we were. What a gift for John to have given us. In the band were Jeremy Hogg, Rob Ellis, John, Polly and the brilliant Eric Drew Feldman from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. They took up more than half the room. We were crammed right up against the band, people were climbing in through the windows, and afterwards, all we had to do was stagger back across the road to bed. That evening had absolutely everything: It was a world debut, it was the best music I had heard in my life, it summed up what John and Polly had attained. And Polly, defying the industry rumours about her alleged state of health, sang like an angel. It couldn’t have been better.
8 October 1996
Fleece and Firkin, Bristol
You couldn’t miss the industry “buzz” here, with record company people swanning around everywhere. The band hated the T-shirts so much that they disowned them! The support band was dEUS, so it was quite an evening of quality.
6 February 1997
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
“Dance Hall At Louse Point” was being performed to accompany a dance production. The rather stuffy atmosphere was enlivened when a friend turned up with someone who wasn’t his wife. It caused us a brief worry but turned out to be innocuous.
3 August 1998
Bridport Arts Centre
We took along Hugh Coltman, at the time the singer with The Hoax, and had a lovely time in The George before and after the show. It was fun to watch the logistical aspects of getting an artic’s worth of gear into and out of a little chapel.
11 December 1998
Colston Hall, Bristol
This was a Winchester outing. Four of us drove down to Bristol and, as we emerged from the car park, someone threw an empty beer bottle at us from a passing bus. It smashed on the pavement, spraying us with glass. What a welcome, and truth to tell, the plushy environs made for rather a stiff show.
18 December 1998
I took along my Irish pal Brendan, a man so full of good-natured bullshit that he must have shagged the Blarney Stone rather than kissing it. Half way through the show, Brendan tugged at my sleeve:
“Look, up there on the balcony, there’s yer man.”
Crikey! Brendan was right. Sitting in one of the gilded boxes was none other than Bono, accompanied by his manager (and Polly Harvey’s) Paul McGuinness. This gave Brendan a characteristic idea, as, after the show, he tried to blag himself and me into an exclusive nightclub on the grounds that “Mr McGuinness is inside waiting for us”, Needless to say, this cut little ice with the security staff.
1 April 1999
Improv Theatre, London
John and Polly did a special duo show to celebrate John Peel’s 60th birthday. I have a recording of this show, which went out on Radio 1, but one unpleasant memory was the woeful performance by Echo and the Bunnymen. Ian McCullough was so out of tune, we had to be restrained from shouting abuse.
17 September 2000
Hope and Anchor, Bridport
18 September 2000
Bridport Arts Centre
I was working down in Bridport and my local of choice was the delightfully scruffy Hope and Anchor, so this was an ideal opportunity to further my pathetic journalistic career. I sent the review to the Independent on Sunday, who duly printed it, and I noted with pride that the yellowing clip remained on the wall of the pub for several years afterwards.
FROM THE “INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY”
It was Sunday lunchtime in Bridport. In a room above the down-at-heel but truly rock’n’roll Hope and Anchor pub, Polly Harvey and her new band have been rehearsing for the imminent promotion of their new America-friendly album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea.
This gig was the first time the five-piece band had played in public, and they were squeezed into the public bar of the back street pub, a space so small they were in danger of injuring each other with their guitar necks.
“What’s she loike?” enquired one red-faced cider monster from the back of the crammed room. “She’s a sweetie, a real sweetie,” replied his mate, from his viewpoint atop a table. In front of me, a gay couple cuddled; to my left a young reporter scribbled. Between the bar and the band, two white-haired elderly gentlemen were enjoying being pressed up against a group of attractive young ladies. A young lad threatened the drummer’s concentration by leaning in through the window from the street and interrogating him, midsong, about his kit. A man with a spider tattoo on his neck was asleep on the bar. Polly asked for a round of applause for the landlady Val, who had been making cups of tea for the band.
Soon they will be on the David Letterman show and playing the Viper Lounge, but at the end of this show a bucket went round, “to pay the band”; two-thirds of the audience pretended not to notice it.
As the show finished, a man entered and asked: “Which is your strongest ale? I want something that’s going to put me on the floor inside two pints.” I’d already committed a faux pas by asking for a half of the local Palmers Bitter. “Palmers? Don’t you bloody swear in here, young man.” Maybe the crime was only asking for a half.
The next morning a queue formed at the Arts Centre ticket office. “I’ll have 12 please,” said a woman who looked so little like a potential PJH fan that I was sure she would add “not for me, of course”. “Sorry,” was the reply, “it’s a maximum of six.” “Oh. Well, I’ll have six for me and six for my husband.” “All right then.”
A member of staff took a photo of the queue. “We’ve never seen one of these before,” he explained.
At that evening’s show the band were able to move about and looked less nervous, and Polly had changed from jeans into a psychedelic miniskirt. Soon, it will be rock venues and TV studios, not pubs and arts centres. But just for this weekend, for Polly Jean Harvey, her band and her Dorset fans, the stories were all from the sea.
11 February 2001
Shepherds Bush Empire
Two friends, whose views I hold in great respect, walked out and went to the pub. The reason? The band had changed dramatically since the glory days (albeit this album was her most commercial and best selling). Two irritating grunge guitarists, one male and one female, ruined the band and also – heavens – tried to steal the visual limelight from Polly. The show started on a tremendous high with a solo Polly performing “Rid Of Me” and then went downhill.
24 August 2001
I was there to review the festival for an American magazine and took the family along. John Parish was in Eels by this time and joined PJH on stage, being introduced by Polly as “less of a man, more of a God”! Unfortunately, Green Day were on immediately after PJH, so we were jostled by their impatient fans making lewd comments about Polly’s little gold dress.
15 August 2003
Eden Project, Cornwall
FROM “LOGO” MAGAZINE:
This must surely be the most stunning concert environment anywhere in the world, and the ticket price included admission to the sub-tropical domes which are already the UK’s top visitor attraction. Add in the lack of queues, the fresh air, the Cornish pasties and two great bands, and you have the sort of bargain that the average gig-goer never experiences.
After Elbow had played such a quietly honest, reflective and generally inspiring set that a good half off the audience will certainly go out and buy their new album, the stage was set for PJ Harvey’s first UK appearance in two years (apart from the traditional warm-up in Bridport the night before). In situations like this, expectations and hopes are so high that it almost hurts.
Elbow, with their brass and backing singers, had proved that more can sometimes indeed be more, but with P J Harvey, less has always been more. The return to the trio format has been dreamed of by fans for years, and with Mick Harvey and Rob Ellis being so unobtrusively spot on, this was the Polly Show in a big way. Within a few songs, it was obvious that this was to be her first-ever “greatest hits” set, which brought the already warm-hearted audience to a state of ecstasy. Opening with a quadruple whammy of “To Bring You My Love”, “Dress”, “Good Fortune” and “Oh My Lover”, Polly demonstrated a willingness to present her fans with exactly what they so crave to hear. In a performance spanning every album she has made (plus two enticing new songs – “Who the Fuck” and “Shame” in the middle of the set), she demonstrated how the stripped down format can actually benefit the songs, rather than detracting from them.
There were so many facets to this show that it’s very hard for a reviewer to convey them adequately. Who else could sing decade-old songs with such freshness and conviction? Who else could have musos drooling over her beautiful guitars and vintage amplification? Who else could ever carry off an outfit which makes your average tennis pro look like a Victorian prude, yet still not lose a hint of dignity?
I guess everyone present had particular favourites they were waiting for. Mine were “Water” and, oh joy, a first encore of “Angeline”. But not one second of this event (and that included the lengthy between-song tuning-up sessions) was anything less than totally compelling.
A uniquely brilliant artist has returned to bring light into everyone’s lives. Welcome back.
26. May 2004
FROM: THE MID-HANTS OBSERVER
What would it be like? No one had any idea. Last time around, touring “Stories From The City”, Polly had assembled a pretty motley band which alienated many of her followers. Then, in Summer 2003, she hit the road with a classic 3-piece which really did the business. But now she’s gone and recorded an album all by herself. Could she come on like John Shuttleworth and do a solo show? Not as daft as it sounds, because nothing is beyond PJ Harvey.
There are scores of concerts planned for PJH this summer. Warm-ups are usually conducted in her home town of Bridport, but this time there has been a minor dispute with the locals on account of noisy rehearsals, so the faithful with their ears to the ground have congregated on Cowley Road, Oxford for the world debut of this new line-up. It’s nine o’clock and the mood is teetering on the edge of ugliness, as the crowd has been here since seven and there’s no support act and still no sign of any music. Frantic activity takes place around the rebellious keyboard stack in an attempt to coax it into life. “Sod the keyboards”, shouts someone, “Gerronwithit!”
And so they did. The new band turns out to be a quartet, with faithful (and brilliant) Rob Ellis on drums, a new guitarist called Josh Klinghoffer and the Fall’s bassist Dingo. They love their nicknames round these parts. Rob Ellis used to be called Rabid and long-term sound engineer Dick Bullivant rejoices in the soubriquet of Head.
Head is crucial to the success of this show. “Uh Huh Her” is quite a thin-sounding record and the band’s recent appearance on “Later” was almost tinny, but in the confines of this small venue, the huge volume and the outstanding echo effects make for a gigantic, deep sound which more than does justice to a long trawl through the best new songs and classics from the past, such as the evergreen “Dress” and a nicely lugubrious “Down By The Water”. Of the new songs, the single “The Letter” is a stunner, and “Who The Fuck” makes a lot more sense than on record. Polly herself (continuing her habit of singing without a guitar more often than with) is on ace form, and Klinghoffer is the best sideperson she has found since the much-missed Jeremy Hogg, despite the prevalent habit of continually swopping guitars with little noticeable effect on the sound.
For Polly Harvey and her band, it’s going to be a very long, hot summer, but the start could hardly have been better.
20 June 2004
Stadio Olimpico de Tennis, Rome
Quite a night. We had just got off a flight and took a taxi to this obscure part of Rome. Without any dinner, my wife drank three glasses of prosecco (the only drink available) and started bumming cigarettes off strangers (always a bad sign, as she doesn’t smoke). She finally ended up yelling “Badger” at the stage (a tradition at PJH Dorset shows but probably a bit of a puzzle to the assembled Romans). Afterwards, we talked to Rob Ellis, Dingo and Josh Klinghoffer. I can’t explain why this particular grungy, stage-rolling guitarist didn’t offend me at all, whereas the previous ones had. Now he’s in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
14 July 2004
Somerset House, London
A nice one to catch the train to, as it’s just by Waterloo. I remember being underwhelmed by support Morris Teper.
28 July 2007
This was someone’s birthday party. Polly diplomatically altered the expletive-strewn lyrics of “A Woman A Man Walked By” and turned it into a sweet story about a hamster, much to the delight of the many small children present.
March 12 2009
Bridport Arts Centre
The second PJ Harvey and John Parish album was about to be released, and this was the warm-up show.
FROM: “RECORD COLLECTOR” MAGAZINE:
Among family and friends in this quaint converted chapel is the traditional point of departure for all PJ Harvey world tours. Addressing the wardrobe issues caused by her belted shroud with good humour, Polly was on sparkling form, safely surrounded by some outstanding musicians. Sporting more trilbies and mafia suits than a Leonard Cohen convention, John Parish and his colleagues helped Polly to take flight on almost all of the new album and, pleasingly, a good chunk of 1996’s Dance Hall At Louse Point. Extraordinary variety was the keynote, from the gentle falsetto of Leaving California, to the expletive-laden lunacy of A Woman A Man Walked By, and the genuinely barking Pig Will Not (yes, she barks). Particularly exciting was the revival of fantastic older songs, like the lugubrious Rope Bridge Crossing (one of the duo’s finest hours) and Circles Around The Sun. But most thrilling of all was the confirmation that music of this outstanding quality can still command a large, enthusiastic audience. A triumph all round.
March 18 2009
Stubbs Barbecue, Austin, Texas
An incredibly intense South By South West show. I think this was the last appearance of the “shroud”, which was restricting Polly’s movement, and the shows from then on were performed more naturally, barefoot in a black dress. I was in the middle of the crowd with Chris T-T and in just half an hour, they destroyed the ultra muso Texan audience. Next to us, there was a commotion and we worried something unpleasant was happening in the crowd, but actually it was an over-enthusiastic fan hyper-ventilating. I am hesitant about posting the video link, as the recording on my cheap camera is so poor, but I want to give you an idea of what it felt like to be in the crowd, so here it is:
April 21 2009
Shepherds Bush Empire, London
We were excited to get balcony seats for this one, with a great bird’s eye view.
July 9 2009
Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth
This was the only time I ever saw a PJ Harvey show which went less than well. She was warming up for Camp Bestival and the performance was the completely solo White Chalk show. Astoundingly, a large chunk of the audience rudely talked all the way through. Polly was visibly shaken and afterwards, the promoter told me she said she was thinking of quitting live performance. Of course this is unthinkable and isn’t true, as she is even now gearing up to tour the new album with a band consisting of herself, Mick Harvey, John Parish and drummer Jean-Marc Butty. Can’t wait!
October 31 2011
Royal Albert Hall
I went with daughter Lucy and we did that strange Albert Hall thing of sitting behind the band. I was in a minority of one in the entire world in thinking Let England Shake wasn’t the best PJ Harvey album.
February 4 2015
Somerset House, London
Even more peculiar: This was the one where you got to be part of an art installation by watching the band recording in a box. It was very funny, because John accused the band of sounding like Bad Manners!