Photo credit: Jan Petersen
We know Randers is not Aarhus – and frankly so does the rest of Denmark, but we’re not here to trash our Mokai drinking neighbours to the north. Instead of saying something like; PJ Harvey’s concert last night was the best thing to happen in Randers since they built the road to Aarhus, I’ll just put it this way: it was one of the best and most important concerts I’ve ever witnessed.
I’ve seen Harvey perform now in each of the three decades of her career, once in her mid-90s beginnings with her heavily accounted relationship with Nick Cave, twice in her 2000s guises- leaning from indie heavyweight to her eclectic inward dwelling White Chalk and Uh Huh Her era, and now yesterday – possibly the most powerful and meaningful incarnation as political and global soothsayer in her journey through the millennium’s second decade’s Let England Shake and Hope Six Demolition Project. I can safely say that this is where miss Polly Jean Harvey and her long-serving ensemble finally landed a place on my “most memorable musical experiences” list, after an astounding and life-affirming performance.
I was there for the music – one of the lucky to scoop up a ticket from Værket’s own ticket website, where by some glitch in the matrix, I accidentally purchased it 20 minutes before sales began. I got the train there, full also with young and old pre-gaming for the show. There were hundreds of people wandering around Randers city centre, asking where the heck the venue is. We arrived to massive queues for two tiny bars where card machines were broken, beer ran out and three poor young women worked fervently to serve exactly 1,000 PJ fans relentlessly before the “no drinks” concert in Værket’s large hall. The bell tolled and we all found our seats – mine being in the upper balcony where the air was so stale and warm that I almost wished I hadn’t been drinking those 3 glasses of wine before heading in.
I was sat beside a blind gentleman and his friend. This was actually a very interesting perspective to the evening – as the blind man’s buddy would whisper audio description of precisely what was happening at key points during the show. Although the setting of the stage, aside from the battery of instruments and understated backdrop of a screen that seemed like a honeycomb of low-income tower block tenements (reminiscent of London’s tragic Greenfield) was fairly Spartan. The band came out in a “second line” fashion as a marching band – PJ and her tenor sax joined the horn section as the two drummers paraded up to their riser. We saw long-time collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey take their places – this was going to be a good one.
PJ stepped out from her position in the saxophone line and took centre stage. Swathed in a sultry but evil looking black dress with flowing streams of light fabric blowing lightly in the fan’s wake – she looked like a floating banshee – a mourning widow – and at times when the light hit her “cape” right – some sort of caped crusader in the dark night. “Chain Of Keys” began – one of the more understated tunes from last year’s Hope Six. The song ended in a masterful atonal blast of double saxophone (both being played by one man) and the audience erupted. Blind man’s friend described what just happened – as a smile crept across his face and leaned forward. At certain points during the performance, I would look over to the blind gentleman and see pure glee on his face – being completely enveloped by this sound.
The audience was absolutely captivated. Not a peep or a “whoop” came in between numbers. PJ spoke not a word as she hung up her sax and sauntered back to the mic. The theatre was so silent that you could her very loudly, her high heel boots clomping on the boards. The band suddenly launched into “Ministry Of Defence” – now being attacked by 5 guitar players and pulsed by the two-man percussion battery. This was no conventional rock band – more like an electrified marching band. The sound was absolutely like nothing I’d ever heard – more symphonic – Harvey’s voice cutting you right in the teeth as her ensemble rumbled in your chest and bowels.
The body of the set was a patchwork of Let England Shake and Hope Six tracks – which is what I’d hoped for with this show. I’ve been waiting since 2010 to see this era of Harvey performed like this. I sat mid-way through the concert before she began going a little further back in her catalogue and thinking; I can’t think of any other artist that has successfully moved from writing inward to outward with such incredible results. What I mean is, if you take the bulk of Harvey’s work from her early beginnings (Dry) and all the way to say White Chalk, she always seemed to focus on her inner self – musing on feelings, the past, or maybe even pondering her fate in the future. With Let England Shake – it was a noticeable and effective sea change to the outward. First to her native England, and then with Hope Six, taking an even further removed journalistic approach to a global situation. Seeing her perform these songs, the outward facing ones –even her body language has changed. Gone was the sultry seductress of the tiny woman in the sexy little dress – now we have this – mage of sorts, dressed in mourning – arms outstretched, giving these precise and heavy songs to a crowd. It borders on preaching in a way – not in the ‘Nick Cave-ish preacher-gone-mad’ fevering way – but almost more like a guru (albeit an extremely morbid and intense one) relaying her thoughts on the world – but backed by this incredible sound.
I noticed her body language did change back to the former self during older numbers. She did of course pepper the show with earlier cuts like “50 Foot Queenie” and “Down By The water”. Something for me didn’t sit right though when she played the more bombastic and straight-ahead rock pieces with this band – of course it worked, however in this large hall and with only the most basic of instruments (albeit a lot of them) it wasn’t able to achieve the same effect as her most recent songs, that were tailor made for this constellation of players, and with what they brought. The pieces from White Chalk however, especially “Dear Darkness”, were even more heavier and pungent than before – some surprising highlights.
The backdrop lowered and the band formed a parade and marched off again – however the crowd, now 100% standing in ovation – shook the foundations of the venue and of course the band reclaimed their positions for a few more songs, beginning with the Bob Dylan cover “Highway 61 Revisited” and ending with “The River” from Is This Desire. The crowd wanted more of course – but the group took one last bow and we were ushered out into the night.
After the show, I had that feeling that you would expect of “wow” and “chills”, however there was something more to it – like a weight had been lifted. I can’t really describe it – almost like you’ve been crying for a long time and now you’re done and feel sort of tired and stuffed up, yet relaxed. Maybe PJ kicked something loose in me that needed fixing. Maybe because the world is probably in the worst state it’s been in our lives – maybe we just needed something so incredibly wonderful and beautiful like a PJ Harvey concert in Randers on a cool August night, or maybe it was something more. I was very honoured to share this astounding experience with the 999 other people in attendance. Young or old – I don’t think a single person could not feel that something absolutely incredible just occurred in that building on a hill.
Chain of Keys
The Ministry of Defence
The Community of Hope
All and Everyone
Let England Shake
The Words That Maketh Murder
The Glorious Land
In the Dark Places
The Ministry of Social Affairs
Down by the Water
To Bring You My Love
Highway 61 Revisited
"After the show, I had that feeling that you would expect of “wow” and “chills”, however, there was something more to it – like a weight had been lifted. I can’t really describe it – almost like you’ve been crying for a long time and now you’re done and feel sort of tired and stuffed up, yet relaxed." (6/6)