Polly Jean Harvey‘s long-awaited show as part of Ferrara’s annual ‘Sotto le Stelle’ (under the stars) summer season of outdoor concerts is her only date in Italy this year. I was there to swoon and croon (sotto voce!).
The last time I saw her in concert was in 1992 as support to Family Cat in a small club in Camden Town just before the release of her debut album, Dry. Then she was shy yet assertive and while she still has the same self-contained detachment all these years on she has matured into an assured and charismatic performer. She has a real stage presence and has developed this cool way of starting some songs from the back of the stage and then walking slowly forward to the microphone.
She is still a woman of few words and speaks only at the end to introduce her three-man band and to say “Thank you for listening”.
Why should we care as the music speaks volumes and she really inhabits her songs. And what songs! Her last album, Let England Shake, already has the status of a modern classic so it was a privilege to hear all the tracks played live (for good measure she also threw in the b-side The Big Guns Called Me Back Again)
Some, like On Battleship Hill and Written on the Forehead, sounded even better live although The Colour of the Earth, with Mick Harvey (no relation) on vocals, still sounds like the weakest track and makes a lame song to close with.
England (the song) also died a death due to a lousy sound system with rumbling bass notes which plagued the whole show . PJ and band definitely need a better team of technicians; the two guys who tuned the instruments looked like zombies and tried to look purposeful with their gaffer tape but gave the impression they were just pretending to know what they were doing. If Polly was frustrated by these problems, she didn’t show it; she was a model of calmness and serenity throughout.
She interspersed her new songs with some old favourites like Down By The River and C’mon Billy. I was pleased as punch that she played Angeline and The Sky Lit Up, the first two tracks from Is This Desire? which is still my favourite album of hers.
Another nice surprise was Pocket Knife from the album Uh Huh Her which I’d half forgotten about. This is her definitive ‘I will never marry’ statement with forthright and faintly menacing lyrics that makes it like a murder ballad before the killing occurs: “Flowers I can do without / I don’t wanna be tied down / White material will stain / My pocket knife’s gotta shiny blade”
The bold assertion in this song that “I just wanna make my own fuck-ups” also sums up her career as someone dedicated to following her own path and refusing to play safe.
Actually, the scornful wedding dress references are a little ironic since her stage costume would serve very well as a eye-catching bridal outfit (so long as you turn a blind eye to the black boots). It is quite an amazing outfit and with the white feathers in her hair she looks like some futuristic (and less gloomy) version of Charles Dickens’ Miss Haversham.
An encore of Big Exit and Silence had the crowd in ecstasy and we stayed on begging for more even when the stage lights went up. “Listen to the people” cried one guy in desperation but Polly had disappeared into the night. One roadie drew his hand across his throat as a sign to dismantle the stage.
With hindsight, it was probably too much to hope that they would come back and play a second encore. Silence, was clearly designed as an apt conclusion so I suppose we should be thankful for that and be philosophical. As Bette Davis might have said, why ask for the moon when we have stars like Polly Jean.