Live Shots: PJ Harvey at the Warfield, 4/14/11

Pub date April 15, 2011

PJ Harvey has taken the Warfield stage at numerous points and in many forms during her career over the past two decades – never predictable, always engaging. Her performance on Thursday night, a pre-Coachella warm-up gig, was the sort of wonderfully unexpected showing you’d come to expect from Polly Jean.

Dressed in a white robe and black-feathered Valkyrie-esque headdress, Harvey spent much of the night cradling her autoharp, looking like a dreamscape figment from one Neil Gaiman’s Sandman novels. It was appropriate attire for the set of music she delivered – both ethereal and sublime.

With the backing of her deft three piece band (featuring longtime collaborator John Parish) Harvey delved deeply into the new material from her latest album, Let England Shake. By her standards, it’s a quiet body of work (resonating with the atmosphere of 1998’s Is This Desire), reflecting on our modern era of warfare and human strife. The material is excellent, and Harvey delivers it with an affected certainty, as if the entire setlist was handed down to her on divine authority. This then, made for a night that was far less rock concert and more of an artistic exploration of sorts. With most artists, that may have made it tedious, but with Harvey it was spellbinding.

She delivered some big favorites, of course, including “Down by the Water,” “Big Exit,” and “The Sky Lit Up,” though she fit them into the evocative mood she had been developing all evening. The crowd didn’t seem to mind in the least, spending many of the down moments in between songs broadcasting their love and gratitude to Harvey and her music.

Never content to just tow the line of what has worked in the past, Polly’s past three albums (most notably the hallucinatory piano balladry of White Chalk) have been mature and outside-the-box efforts unlikely to win huge commercial appeal. But like this unique performance at the Warfield, it stands as evidence that the 50 Foot Queenie is poised to age gracefully.