Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
In the cavernous, hi-tech, Bridgewater Hall, a stage that is more used to housing a full orchestra looks decidedly empty with only a piano and a few fairy-light covered amps resting in its centre. It is set for Polly Jean Harvey’s first UK performance of 2007, and as the hall slowly fills, the anticipation is palpable.
Peej walks on, a statuesque figure in a grand white dress, standing out stark in the now blacked-out venue and the first words out of one of the most influential artists of our time? “Oh my goodness, you’ve brought a horn!” One of the audience has indeed, packed a foghorn, and salutes Polly with it several times.
Harvey seems chipper and starts banging out classic ‘Mansized’ on a Gibson Explorer, but she quickly promises new material, an announcement which receives the kind of reception you’d expect. She heads for the piano and, admitting she’s a novice, sets a metronome going. It’s different, a delicate but passionate piano-led ballad with a high and clear vocal. She follows it with the similar ‘White Chalk’, a song about the Westcountry of her birth. Both tracks see a break from her usual gruff, gutsy vocals as she sets the natural potential of her voice free.
Despite the scale of the venue, with its wonderful acoustics and Polly’s intimate stage presence, we could be watching her in the corner of a cafe as banter is shared with individual audience members and plaudits are passed happily back and forth. During songs she may smoke with passion and guts, but between she has the affable demur of a ditzy Primary school teacher.
An idiosyncratic and kooky ‘Big Exit’ is followed by another newbie ‘The Mountain’. Tingling, angsty, it’s almost Jeff Buckley, but then she cuts back to that rawness for a blistering ‘Is This Desire?’ She leaves us pre-encore with this: “We’re growing old together. Do you think we’ll still be doing this when we’re 70?” PJ Harvey may have mellowed some, but she still has it and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if we’re dragging our ageing bodies back to the Bridgewater in 2030.
By Kenn Taylor