A small woman with an outsized voice and a brash guitar style, Polly Jean Harvey relishes extremes.
Beginning with her iconoclastic and influential debut, 1992's Dry, PJ Harvey has forged a fiercely independent career. She's moved from aggressive explorations of sexual power struggles to raw, cathartic screeds to beautifully unsettling blues incantations to haunted, introspective ballads.
Her collective body of work probably brought the crowd - which skewed older - to the Trocadero on Sunday night. But this was a PJ Harvey and John Parish show, with both artists getting, and deserving, equal billing.
When she was a teenager in western England, Harvey joined John Parish's band Automatic Dlamini, and he helped form her musical identity: her abrasive, rhythmic guitar style owes a lot to him. As a solo artist, she has often returned to working with Parish. He helped produce her masterpiece, To Bring You My Love (1995), as well as the understated White Chalk (2007), and he has been in her band for other albums and tours.
Sunday's show celebrated the release of their new collaboration, A Woman a Man Walked By, and the 80-minute set drew almost exclusively from that album and its predecessor, Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). For these albums, Parish wrote the music and Harvey the lyrics, and they're deliberately difficult, uncompromising collections. Sunday's show was theatrical, dissonant, and captivating.
Parish helmed the quintet with rhythmic, unconventional leads, usually on electric guitar but switching sometimes to banjo, National Steel, or ukulele. He favors unusual, minor-key chords, serrated and propulsive, that grow toward noisy climaxes. The rest of the impassive, gray-suited, fedora-topped band included guitarist Giovanni Ferrario, drummer Jean Marc Butty, and keyboardist/bassist Eric Drew Feldman, whose work with Captain Beefheart made him a natural for this music.
Harvey, in her formal black dress, stuck to vocals, percussion, and interpretive dance. Her voice shifted wildly, from conventional rock-and-roll aggression ("Black Hearted Love," "Civil War Correspondent") to unhinged, explosive recitations (the profane, deranged "A Woman a Man Walked By"; a blasphemous, aptly titled "Taut") to screaming, atonal refusals ("Pig Will Not") to eerie, funereal lullabies ("Passionless, Pointless," "Cracks in the Canvas").
Most songs were brief and intense, as was the set itself. It would have been a treat to hear this band assay something from To Bring You My Love or other Harvey solo albums, but that's a quibble with a show so passionate and pointed.