With Let England Shake not even a week old, PJ Harvey kicks off her live tour in the gorgeous amphitheater Cirque Royale in Brussels. It’s still definitely a winter’s evening outside but inside we’re boiling in minutes as with the cloakroom full we have to wear our winter coats into the venue. Thankfully cheap beers help keep the temperatures down.
The stage is sparse and with one spotlight high on a huge grey plinth it does give off the aura of a cenoutaph at night – entirely appropriate for tonight’s subject matter. The new album explorations into wartime are often stark affair and it’s clear from the moment PJ and her band arrive on stage that it’s going to be that kind of night too.
PJ is sporting a head-dress of crows wings and a black leather bodice/dress that does give the look of a theatrical widow but from the opener and album’s title track we’re into some serious business. Standing alone on the left, she is backed to the right by the just-as-serious pair of John Parish and The Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey and from the off the documentary of war that she unfolds is often spellbinding.
Third song ‘All And Everyone’ is a case in point. The stripped sounds from the stage echo around the packed venue and the music and words convey all the dirt and dust of a battleground. Sombre for sure but perfectly pitched and in the midst of these songs you can feel quite alone in the room. ‘In The Dark Places’ also sounds beautiful, in all its shades of grey.
Soon, however, gaps begin to literally appear. Between each song the band and Polly herself take so long to prepare for the next song that the atmosphere created slowly vanishes and we begin to realise that we’re back in a room in Brussels. The crowd are patient, but there are still the odd few yells from the less restrained. There is no contact from the stage so these ever increasing vacuums become distracting from the power evident in the actual performance. Fair to say it was the first night of a tour but these seasoned professionals looked like they had not been in the same room before tonight. With the hard work done of creating this beautiful bleakness live, they let the ball drop in quite an amateur way.
This aside, it was still captivating in moments and the rare back-catalogue numbers such as ‘Angeline’ and ‘Down By the Water’ were lapped up. A lengthy curtain call got us just one extra song (though the set-list had three listed) so perhaps the first night hitches got to the band somewhat.
If strung together seamlessly, these gigs could be a mesmerising rendition of PJ Harvey’s excellent documentary of war. More than a gig she will succeed in giving an audience serious food for thought under the cloak of entertainment and to be fair, she almost succeeded tonight.