A few weeks ago in the unexpected context of a meeting at Southwark Cathedral I met an archdeacon who told me that the Brixton Academy is ‘a lovely venue’. The architectural framing of the auditorium certainly makes it unusual, and we wondered why the management saw fit to keep it all in darkness an hour or more before the concert was due to start so people had to pick their way gingerly around or dazzle one another with flashlights. But it was OK, I suppose. Not as plush as the Albert Hall, admittedly. I also fell to wondering, as we constantly had to avert our knees from the traffic of passing concert-goers in front of us, even during the concert itself, how it was that so many people found it impossible to go for an hour and a bit, an hour and a bit that they have had months to prepare for, without a drink or a wee or, given the close relationship between those activities, both. You’ve paid quite a lot for this, why aren’t you watching it?
‘8.30 sharp’ was given as the start time, which I put down as a bit of Harveyism, being the kind of thing no musician would ever say. In fact we kicked off about ten minutes later. Gosh, it was loud. It was pummellingly loud, at least for an irregular concertgoer like me. The subtleties of the recorded music weren’t lost, but turned up so there was no chance whatever of missing them: you couldn’t call the result beautiful, but the power and emotion were undeniable, a complete contrast to the reticence of the Let England Shake concert five years ago. That time, PJ was virtually static: she didn’t exactly chuck herself around the stage last night, but instead, when not blaring on the saxophone, wove to and fro between the nine band members, gesturing in a sort of shamanic dance. It was a big, big production: after the opener ‘Chain of Keys’ the great grey metallic backdrop whose symbolic meaning nobody is quite certain of rose up from behind the stage to dominate the proceedings visually. Whatever it means, it has a certain threatening presence and, more practically, allows a variety of lighting effects to play across it enhancing the ambience of different songs.
Songs? Well, most of Hope Six, four from Let England Shake, two from White Chalk – including the haunting, disjointed ‘To Talk to You’ which offered a quieter if not at all comfortable interlude in the high-volume proceedings – and a couple of old favourites. If PJH has a signature song, ‘Down by the Water’ is it (Alain Johannes did stick duty on that this time), and was achieved in good dark hallucinatory style; ‘To Bring You My Love’ was positively demonic. From way back in 1992, ’50-Foot Queenie’ should have been the most air-pounding track of all but for some reason that was when Polly’s mike let her down, it seemed to me, and quite a bit of it was indistinguishable – not a problem any other time in the set, despite the volume.
We didn’t stay for the encore, so our evening finished with the slow, majestic ‘River Anacostia’, with its imagery of Jesus walking on the poisoned waters by the Washington naval yards. ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ intone the band, intercut with Polly’s plaintive query ‘What will become of us?’ and finally silence and darkness fall: enough, at least, to make a soppy Christian tearful. I wonder what she’ll do next? This tour runs until Reykjavik in early November, starts again with a leg in Australia and Japan next year, and might go to South America though no dates are set yet. That will probably be it, as she doesn’t enjoy touring, doesn’t need the money, and presumably only does it so people can hear the music. Of course I am much more relaxed when she’s at home in Dorset and going no further than the corner shop for a pint of milk. But what then?