I first heard PJ Harvey when I was 14 and scared to death. She’s the reason us riot grrls survived high school without blowing our heads off or cutting too deep. She’s also the reason behind some very sexy nights. I traded in my flowy skirts and Tori Amos fairy sensibilities for red lipstick, latex, and a snarl that could cut glass. And age hasn’t dulled her blade either; PJ Harvey is still a musical schizophrenic, shape-shifting over the years from a bra-and-boots 90s rock goddess to a sleek city girl singing duets with Thom Yorke to a Victorian ghost-like piano player. We have yet to see her make the same record twice.
Ten years later, I see her in concert for the first time at San Francisco’s Warfield Theatre. Needless to say, it was kind of a big deal for me. She is touring with John Parish in support of their second collaborative effort, A Woman A Man Walked By, and early on in the show, she let us know that they would only play songs from their two records, the first being Dance Hall At Louse Point. I secretly hoped she would dip into her back catalog and give us “Angelene” or “Man-Size.” But PJ kept her word and performed a setlist comprised of only two albums.
Despite the absence of her solo material, I found myself overwhelmed by every single song. It’s not that these songs are some of her best stuff — there are some melodramatic missteps on Dance Hall — rather, it is the spectacle of PJ Harvey, and I mean spectacle in the most creatively thrilling way. Her performances are physical manifestations of the sounds produced by John Parish and the backing band. In songs like “Pig Will Not,” PJ dashed across the stage, barking like a mad dog as the drums thundered and Parish’s guitar got gritty. In “A Woman a Man Walked By,” PJ growls, “Stick it up your fucking ass!” and I feel something like catharsis. Then there are moments like “Rope Bridge Crossing” where PJ sways seductively and Parish turns into a bluesy saloon player. “Civil War Correspondent” ends with the band standing frozen in the white lights as PJ trembles out front, her voice crying, “Gunfire, gunfire.” The lights dim and she bows her head. The audience breathes.