I have been in the crowd witnessing PJ Harvey on stage through many years. I have been playing her music in my headphones for even longer. I have seen her changing from her angry rock guitar persona to a gentle, brooding piano player, moving on to a plethora of musical instruments both ancient and new and a diversity of collaborators throughout the years. There is an urgency, a passion to her music that is so totally unlike any music written by any other woman in the musical world, she is so very English and so very atypical, she is tiny and powerful, classy and minimalist.
She is touring a few festivals during the summer and I witnessed her gig at the Route du Rock at the Fort St Père near Saint Malo, in France. There are hundreds, thousands of festivals during the summer, it has become big business, huge business. Most festival goers are not even interested in the music, it is just an excuse to party, an expensive excuse to party. But I do care about the music and PJ’s concert, totally well-rehearsed, goes like clockwork. She is accompanied by a band of 9 arriving in a procession all playing a percussion instrument, drums of all shapes and forms. Mainly the music on show is part of her recent musical past, The Hope Six Demolition Project, White Chalk, Let England Shake. She mainly sings but occasionally blows a sax, the same she has been holding in the recent promotional photo shoots. She is elegantly dressed in black, the cold wind blows her infinite sleeves and trademark long hair. She sings at us dramatically, theatrical, constantly posing for the cameras, very much camera conscious. She does not waste her time speaking to the audience, her focus is on her music, war and violence the main themes of her funeral band. We are only allowed a couple of tracks from her younger musical past, Down by the Water, the mantra-like, violin-droning fish swimming in the water, and Bring you my Love, with the loyal John Parish prominently featured on guitar and her vocal prowess displayed at her best. During her concert the sun sets, the cold sets in. At the end, we wait in vain for the next act, there is a big gap with no music on stage, typical French lunch-dinner time emptiness. We can’t be bothered to stay for the rest, cold, tired and with PJ’s music in our ears, we leave the festival.
We leave the festival after a long walk toward the parking lot, a walk lined with trees and very young army men armed with machine guns ready to shoot. When we arrived, we were welcomed by a gendarme with his drug sniffer dog. We leave as if we are in Belfast or Sarajevo in the 90ies…
PJ Harvey at Route du Rock Festival 18 August 2017