“I wonder what PJ Harvey’s internal monologue is like,” my girlfriend said as we drove home from the Trocadero Sunday, June 7. Given the frenetic, free-spirited dancing, toothy grins and incredibly disturbed discussions we’d just witnessed courtesy of the British alt-rock icon, it was a fair question. After several years away from the City of Brotherly Shove, Harvey made her glorious return to Philadelphia with John Parish, her partner behind this year’s excellent A Woman a Man Walked By. Accordingly, the duo stuck mostly to their two co-billed albums, 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point being the other release.
Not that the night started out too hot. Acoustic opening act Pop Parker took to the stage an hour after doors opened and sucked for 29 minutes. Ostensibly a tongue-in-cheek acoustic troubadour, his profanity-laden tales of ribaldry, underscored by soothing acoustic guitar, stopped being funny after his sound check. Gustave Flaubert he is not. Standout lyrics included “She smokes cigars / and knows things about cars” and “He has a mustache / whoa-oh-whoa-oh-whoa.”
Once the headliner began, though, the crowd erupted in joyous applause. Parish and his three-man backing band emerged in stylish suits and fedora hats. His partner in six-strings, Giovanni Ferrario (best name ever?), even rocked the same sunburst-colored Fender guitar. Barefoot and bearing a black dress, Harvey looked like she had just stepped out of the “Black Hearted Love” video before launching into that very song. It was loud and discordant and spirited, and those first and last adjectives also describe the second song of the set, “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen.”
It quickly became clear that the group could not fail. Though Harvey is arguably more well-known for her non-Parish material -- “Rid of Me,” “This is Love” and so on -- the pretty dang positive crowd lapped up every song played. Personal highlights included raucous renditions of “Urn with Dead Flowers in a Pool” and “Taut” from Dance Hall. The latter, a provocative anti-Christian dirge, was revelatory. While Harvey sounds possessed and/or crazed on the song’s recorded version, she opted for a more earnest, natural-sounding approach live, with the slightest knowing undercurrent of show(wo)manship. It made the contrast between lyrics like “And he used to make me pray / wearing a mask like a death’s head / when he put me there in the backseat” and the chorus “Jesus save me / Jesus save me” both more entertaining but also darker and more believable. Same goes for A Woman a Man’s “A Woman a Man Walked By / The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go” and set-ender “Pig Will Not.” Harvey was a blur of limbs as she danced around and vamped for the mic and audience.
The group successfully worked in more quiet tunes as well. “Passionless, Pointless,” about a failing relationship, was just as heart-rending live as on record. “Leaving California” was pretty good too, although encore-ender “April” was jarring and enervating after so much rocking. “The Soldier,” however, was perfect. Quiet songs are always a gamble at rock shows -- people are incapable of shutting up, ever, you see, which becomes most apparent during this sort of songs. But the band had the audience entranced, making the chorus of “Send me home restless / Send me home damaged / And wanting” all the more haunting. You couldn't hear anything from the fans, not even breathing, it was so silent.
But when “The Soldier” ended, there was plenty of applause to go around. Speaking of the audience, those gathered were polite yet excited, scoring beaming yet reserved smiles from Harvey and Parish (they are British, after all). There was no too-cool posturing here; everyone clearly wanted a piece of the PJ. One particular silver-haired fan wearing a light blue golf shirt stood out among the crowd; I like to think that his loud voice, clear through all the cheers after the regular set, is what galvanized the band into an encore. This guy got some applause of his own, so great were his pipes. I don’t know what that man does for a living, but he deserves a raise.
I try to avoid shit-talking concertgoers -- it’s too personal and specific to really sum up the show overall -- but it’s worth pointing out a balding, portly fellow in a yellow golf shirt and sandals who seemed to bother just about everyone at the front of the Troc’s stage. Seemingly alone for the night, he cut through to the front with little regard for those around him. And while being the big guy who blocks people’s view is merely annoying, this asshole earned his d-bag award when he left, then came back five or 10 minutes later to fight the short woman who took his “spot,” as if he had claim over the standing room space in front of the stage. Her boyfriend showed up later to keep this guy in line. In the unlikely event that he’s reading this review, hey baldy, fuck you. To that woman: You’re an American hero and deserve a raise as well.
One jerk out of hundreds of good natured folk makes for good odds, though. These pleasant people made Harvey and Parish’s anthems about trannies, Jesus freaks, PTSD, failed relationships, and such that much better, as communal settings at their best always do. I can only hope the Harvey and Parish come back soon.