Anticipation crackles in the darkened space of the wonderful, atmospheric Roundhouse in Camden, as a sell-out crowd awaits the arrival of Ms Polly Jean Harvey. I adore this venue – it always seems to attract a knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience but as we wait, the usual pre-gig murmur seems quieter, more respectful than usual. A ringing bell signals the wait is over- applause and cheering fills the air as she stands quietly onstage, then takes her place in the spotlight as an expectant hush falls again.
PJ Harvey @ Roundhouse
I’ve only had time for a brief run-through of the singer-songwriter’s latest and excellent (if not immediately obvious) album I Inside The Old Year Dying, but have been looking forward to hearing these songs live and, as expected, they don’t disappoint. Prayer At The Gate is a strong opener, haunting and delicate with Harvey’s whisper-thin vocal carrying its repeating refrain beautifully.
The tone is set for a full run-through of the LP, with Autumn Term, the extravagantly spelled Lwonesome Tonight, Seem An I and Netheredge all impressing, none outstaying their welcome.
I’ve been at gigs where it’s obvious that the audience is merely tolerating the new material, politely nodding and applauding whilst awaiting the hits – but not tonight. This is a warm, captivated crowd who are hanging on every word, shimmy and strum from Harvey and her faithful band of high class musicians, led by longtime collaborator John Parrish.
The title track and similarly named I Inside The Old I Dying are both highlights – the former more immediate, reminiscent of the Mercury-award winning Let England Shake, and the latter more of a grower, with many around me singing along with “The chalky children of evermore” as the song draws to close.
The slower, downbeat All Souls feels more urgent as a live experience. In fact all of these tracks are elevated by the performance of the ethereal Harvey, Parrish and co. A Child’s Question, August is a warm groove with Parrish’s deeper vocal harmonising beautifully on the refrain of “Love me tender, tender love”. It’s hugely impressive how mesmerised the audience is throughout – you can briefly hear a pin drop at the end of each new song before rapturous applause fills the space. The musicianship is superb and surprising; drifting soundscapes (animal chittering, a dawn chorus, children’s voices) add rich texture. Alongside Harvey’s beautifully strange, choreographed movements, darting about the stage alternately in shadow and bathed in white light, is a thrilling spectacle that keeps us all transfixed.
Despite these songs still being fairly new to me there’s a feeling of familiarity and playfulness that’s hard to describe – like we’re all safe in the hands of a finely honed, enigmatic, magical circus act. To quote a line from the Pitchfork review of I Inside The Old Year Dying, “this is how PJ Harvey albums work now: you feel them without being able to explain them”.
As throughout this tour, the set is divided into two – as A Noiseless Noise brings the new album to a close, PJ leaves the stage temporarily before John Parrish and the rest of the band deliver a rousing, shanty-esque rendition of The Colour Of The Earth from 2011’s Let England Shake.
And now we’re in more familiar territory as the second act begins with two more from that seminal album – the instantly recognisable guitar-and-bugles of The Glorious Land and The Words That Maketh Murder. A brooding Angelene and a truly spine-tingling performance (my favourite of the night) of The Garden – both from Is This Desire? – bookend Send His Love To Me.
We’re treated to the blistering rock of Man-Size and Dress followed by three more tracks from To Bring You My Love – with the dirgey-yet urgent title track acting as initial set closer, before an encore of C’mon Billy and finally, Harvey’s love letter to Dorset, White Chalk.
It’s been an utterly spellbinding, fabulous show from start to finish. I’ve rarely sensed an audience so captivated, and I feel very lucky to have been one of them.
Live review of PJ Harvey @ Roundhouse on 29th September 2023 by Sarah Kavanagh. Photography by Hels Millington.