At packed Stubb’s, PJ Harvey thrilled fans and avoided nostalgia

PJ Harvey at Stubb’s (all photos: Suzanne Cordeiro for American-Statesman)


PJ Harvey could have cashed in long ago.

Back before the White House was a vague twinkle in Trump’s eye (heck, before Obama was even elected to Congress), every single person at Stubb’s Friday night would have been more than  happy to cough up for her to recreate, say, 1993’s snarling “Rid of Me,” one of the best power trio albums of all time, or 1995’s bluesy “To Bring You My Love,” the palette-expanding breakthrough that made her an alt-rock icon.

But no, Harvey had different ideas, sometimes waiting half a decade between records and even longer between tours, figuring out where she wanted to go next.

The show at Stubb’s, her first time in Austin since a 2009 pop in at South By Southwest, supported her 2016 album “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” a reflection on time she spend in Afghanistan and Washington, D.C.

Harvey, looking like she had not aged a day in 20 years, took the stage with a nine-piece band who took the stage in single file, some playing horns (Harvey played a sax on and off throughout the evening), most playing drums. It looked and felt like the world’s most Episcopalian second line.

Mick Harvey (no relation), left with PJ Harvey.

Many of the musicians she had worked with for years (multi-instrumentalist John Parish has played music with Harvey since the latter was a teenager; former Birthday Party/Bad Seed Mick Harvey has collaborated with her almost as long; guitar James Johnson was also one of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds).

Everyone present played on the “Hope Six” album — this was a crack group, capable of recreating walls of guitar (“the Ministry of Defense”). splashy, emotional horns (“Chain of Keys,” “Medicinals”) knotty rhythms (almost everything).

Harvey played the chanteuse-in-chief, used to be the brilliant center of attention with pipes that remain remarkably strong (particularly stunning on “Dollar, Dollar”). I really hope she wasn’t making a “hope is the thing with feathers” joke with her vest.

One did wince a little at the lyrics to “The Community of Hope,” developed from a tour she took of Washington, D.C. with a reporter: “Here’s the highway to death and destruction/ South Capitol is its name/And the school just looks like shit-hole/Does that look like a nice place?/ Here’s the old mental institution/ Now the homeland security base/ And here’s god’s deliverance center/ A deli called M.L.K”

Yikes.  As one might expect, politicians were incensed, the DC music community was appalled and the whole thing smacked of a paternalism that Harvey probably didn’t intend but rang out nonetheless.

PJ Harvey and band.

As for nostalgia, fully half of the songs were from “Hope Six” with three from the enigmatic “White Chalk” and a smattering from older albums.

The crowd, the median age of which was “tenured” was thrilled to see her but roared to life when the band ripped into the galloping “50 Ft Queenie” from “Rid of Me” followed by the Clinton-era classics, shuddering “Down by the Water” and appropriately melodramatic “To Bring You My Love.”

Perhaps Harvey knew that the crowd would have become completely unglued had she leaned more on older material (though it would be wonderful for her to pick up a guitar on stage again — she is a fascinating player) and wanted to leave with the venue standing.

Don’t look for her to lean on her past. She has other ideas. She always has other ideas.

Chain of Keys
The Ministry of Defense
The Community of Hope
The Orange Monkey
A Line in the Sand
Let England Shake
The Words That Maketh Murder
The Glorious Land
When Under Ether
Dollar, Dollar
The Devil
The Wheel
The Ministry of Social Affairs
50ft Queenie
Down by the Water
To Bring You My Love
River Anacostia
Is This Desire?

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