The words that maketh murder

Like a widow in mourning, she glides to the front of the stage wearing a long black gown with a high neck, riding boots and a strange black headpiece, made of long dark feathers which curve down off her head like the tail of a dead pheasant. Her face and hands seem deathly white and as the spotlights descend, the scene is drained of colour.

“These, these, these are the words, the words that maketh murder”!

In the dark, everyone holds their breath. The music starts and immediately PJ Harvey’s voice fills the Royal Albert Hall to the top as she warns us: “The West’s asleep, let England shake”.

In her usual manner she shuns the self-serving stage preening, aiming straight for the music. If the venue is awe inducing, she shows no sign of being overshadowed by it. To the contrary, she makes the immense towering dome and the 8,000 people feel like they are attending an exclusive recital. It’s like she sings for herself first and foremost, and for every member of the audience personally after that.

The stage is nearly bare, save for the  instruments that will accompany her throughout the night. Her backing musicians and singers are discreet but powerfully present, lending their voices to the tunes and switching seats depending on what’s needed for each song. It’s a stage set-up for making music, not showing off.

Trombones and saxophones share the stage with pianos and drums, guitars and last but not least, the Grand Organ. Resident of the RAH, its pipes look like they were carved by giants, like they belong to something larger then man.

When it is played between two songs, the sense of foreboding is tangible. It fits into her most recent album beautifully. “Let England Shake” touches on the destruction of conflict, the mutilation of bodies and the horror that was felt in the aftermath of World War I.

All emotions that are still all too real in this day and age and there is a sense that PJ Harvey is dressed in black as she mourns for the world.

She peppers her set with hits from her current album (“The words that maketh murder”, “England”), and with gems from her previous albums: “The Devil” , “The Piano”,  “Dear Darkness” and “Silence” from White Chalk. “C’mon Billy”, “Down by the Water” from “To Bring You my Love”,  “Pocket Knife” and a rare accoustic version of “The Desperate Kingdom of Love” from “Uh Huh Her”.

“Big Exit” from the more mainstream “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” draws cheers from an otherwise well-behaved crowd.

The atmosphere at this show is reverent, silent and intense. Earlier gigs in the Troxy in London in January or in the Olympia in Dublin a few years back were markedly different, as fans danced and shouted “PJ, we love you!”  between songs as she humbly thanked them in slightly posh Surrey tones.

At the RAH, the crowd is seated so movement is restricted, forcing one to listen and watch instead of physically losing oneself in the music.

PJ’s voice soars into the highs of ethereal bjork-like musing, falls into the growls of rock n’ roll and imprints every word and every song into the soul of the listener. Hearing her albums is an experience in itself, but seeing her live is unforgettable.

When she started singing, she shook the foundations of the 90s with alternative guitar-rock and has gradually changed her sound on each album.

You think you’ve heard it all, and out comes another album that will bring you into another world, a world of raw emotions, sometimes so painful and familiar you feel as though her songs have come straight from the core of your own being.

In the current world of Rihanna porn-pop and xFactor conveyor belt plastic doll selection, this concert was a rare and beautiful showcase of raw talent.  There is not doubt that each member of the audience that night witnessed a historic musical moment.

During the encore, PJ’s voice hit the high notes of “White Chalk” and an eerie gust of wind blew up from the crowd, catching her black dress and feathered headpiece.

She looked like a ghost singing on the bow of a sunken ship. Like a mermaid, whose deadly song could drag a fleet of ships down into the dark abyss to a voluntary death.

That night, she had 8000 of us holding our breaths, hoping against hope that there was just one more song left to sing. “Silence” was the last word she sang, and it seemed fitting as we tried to take in the beauty of the moment.

The RAH has yet to recover from what it just witnessed.

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About monicaheck
Monica Heck is a bilingual freelance writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland.

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