Written by Tara Nicole Golden, Photos by Kat Nyberg
Sometimes it is best to walk into something without any expectations or even knowledge. That was how I approached this PJ Harvey show at The Crystal Ballroom. I had heard PJ’s music before, and appreciated it, but although I have seen her albums in stores for years, they were never added to my personal music collection… that is about to change.
I went there with a beautiful blonde woman I am friends with, and planned to enjoy a night where her company was foremost and the music and show would merely be a setting… a pleasant evening of music followed by drinks and conversation. You see this woman is a concert photographer, who freezes moments and brings fans closer than otherwise possible to their musical idols. It’s safe to say that we are somewhat jaded when it comes to concerts… we’ve just seen so many that it is somewhat hard for us to be impressed.
The line for the concert was around the block from the Crystal Ballroom, as fans waited patiently for the sold out show’s doors to open. This was the first thing that struck me. Usually, at concerts, fans wait until the last possible minute to line up, spending their time in bars or around town until the headliner goes on stage. But this was a “night with” show, meaning it was only PJ Harvey, no openers. I was also struck at the broad diversity of those in line… there were older people, dressed in casual attire fit for the warm spring day, there were young goth and punks wearing the clothes that fit their music affiliations, and all stood waiting… to see this one woman and her band play the legendary stage of the old gem on the hill, the Crystal Ballroom.
I went inside and found a place by the VIP bar that was closing, while Kat went about her photo job in “the pit.” It was late, the show had been pushed, and so we all waited patiently, with drinks in hand. The time dragged on… and on… and finally the house lights dimmed and the show began.
It all started with the martial sounds of snares and marching drums off stage… and slowly, like they were marching to a military funeral, the drummers walked up on stage. Frrrrrth boom frrrrth boom frrrth boom as the stage filled with the musicians. And then the cheering started as a slight woman in a feathered vest and feathers in her hair that resembled horns walked on stage carrying a saxophone. And then the music began.
It’s hard to describe accurately what happened on that stage. Yes, there was music. Talented musicians in her band switched instruments and created a sound that was distinct… even though it swept from Blues like riffs to a sort of New Orleans jazz then an almost classical feel and all was skillfully blended to present a flawless, choreographed setting for PJ’s unique artistry. There were horns, and woodwinds, a keyboard, drums and voices — each musician sang, weaving their voices into choruses… sometimes discordant, often in a minor key, that made an atmosphere. This atmosphere could best be described as dark: a Gothic, Romantic, nocturnal backdrop that, at least for me, evoked something primal, something ancient, some nascent memory from a forgotten dark past… a perfect setting for a sorceress to weave her spell.
That would be the best way to describe the stage persona of PJ Harvey: a sorceress. She was in full character. She stalked, she used her arms to weave incantations, she danced, while singing. Her voice, that trilling soprano, went from lilting to grunting, soared and then dove, spinning dark lyrics that washed in waves over us. She would sing a song, and then step back into the shadows to finalize the spell with her saxophone. If you were to see her outside of this setting, she would not arouse much notice, just a slight, ageless woman, but here… on this stage, she was powerful, she was intimidating, she was fierce, she was sexy, she was everything possible for a woman. I would say that she, up there on that stage, portrayed for us what the New age philosophy has claimed is possible, laying deep within a primal core of every woman… but which is rarely glimpsed… except here. PJ had it in spades, and she held us spellbound as we watched something that was rare and beautiful, dark and mysterious, enchanting and breathtaking there on that stage.
And then, after a few encores, it was over. House lights came on and the last whisps and tendrils of the spell dissolved in the light, or crept across the wooden floor, around the abandoned, plastic beer cups, to wind their way between window and frame and out into the night and the streetlight lit city that may have felt a little darker, a little more Gothic, a little more mysterious and beautiful.
And I wandered out into that city, maybe hoping to catch a fading tendril of that mesmerizing spell, maybe just looking for a drink in a dimly lit bar with some friends… but changed somehow. Something was touched in there. Somehow PJ Harvey wove her spell and woke something up in me. I do not know exactly what this woken aspect is exactly. I don’t know what may come from this experience… but I am certain that I will listen to PJ Harvey’s albums with a new appreciation for this dark seductive sorceress and her Gothic tales set to music. If we could hold magic… but that is the thing with magic: it
fades but leaves behind a lasting imprint, a transformation that is hard to define, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
- Tara Nicole Golden