Live Music + Gig Reviews

PJ Harvey & John Parish @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

20 April 2009

PJ Harvey & John Parish

PJ Harvey & John Parish

Let’s start with the obvious: Polly Jean Harvey is barking. No. Wait. You there. You, struggling with the difference between the literal and the figurative. Put down the metaphor. Tonight, she’s actually barking. Prowling the front of the stage, letting her audience get in touch with her inner canine.

John Parish, on the other hand, merely stands there, dapper as you like, trilby poised, looking kind of pleased with himself. As well he might. Because this was a gig to admire. Possibly not one to skip the light fandango to, possibly not one to rank as the most comfortable or enjoyable 80-or-so minutes of your life, but an inescapably unique experience.

It’s something that Parish and Harvey both seem to get. No one really moves throughout; a couple of fists are thrown up here and there, and there’s some half-hearted shuffling during Back Hearted Love, but by the end Polly Jean is demurely thanking us for “listening. Really listening”. And Parish, well, he just smiles and doffs his hat.

With the vast shifts of pace and tone it’s all you can sensibly do. Particularly when they dispense with the aforementioned Black Hearted Love, easily the most straightforward song off their just released second collaborative album A Woman A Man Walked By, immediately. Amongst everything else which happens, it’s easy to lose sight of, but it is a great thing: Harvey playing it vocally straighter than she’s managed for three records, and Parish tearing riffs which reverberate around the venue with metallic intensity.

But from that point, the path gets darker. We’re led into swamps of ukulele dressed backwater murk (Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen). We creep around eerie, spindly ballads played on tiny guitars, sung in a petrifyingly fragile falsetto (Leaving California). And then we’re smashed around the face with threats of anal violation and dog impressions.

That’s right. Anal violation. As mentioned, comfort and enjoyment weren’t the prevalent emotions on display here. But such is the skill of Parish and Harvey, everywhere we’re taken, be it the jaw-dropping thrash of A Woman A Man Walked By and Pig Will Not through the quieter (often far more unsettling) moments, we go willingly. Watching in immaculately observed silence. Applauding with unrelenting enthusiasm.

Nothing that either of them do is obvious. Some of what they do isn’t an easy listen. But they both have a quality and a mystique that prevents you looking away. Parish convinces as some kind of mystical guitar wizard and Harvey, well, she’s still just barking. Long may it continue.

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