Polly Jean Harvey skips on stage in a black dress, no shoes on her feet, hair loose and collarbone like a sparrow. The man who first taught her to play guitar 20 years ago is to her left in a sharp suit and trilby, and, with the rest of the band, launches straight into the coarsing pulse of 'Black Hearted Love', the pounding dark pop single from the collaborators' second album.
This sure is a hot ticket: the crowd roars and gurning VIPs drip from the balcony at the sight and sound of the music industry's pioneering sorceress. The woman-child Polly Jean could not be more respected industry-wise, with seven solo albums of pure inventive gold under her belt. Despite her status she is quiet and humble, with a Tess D'Urberville Dorset lilt of untainted perfection. Solemn and sweet, she be the politest girl you ever heard, thanking the audience sincerely after every song, sometimes twice.
John Parish's musical and songwriting skill is not in doubt, but it's Polly Jean who holds and moulds the gig into a theatrical performance, sometimes tender, sometimes a screaming diatribe. She shimmies to the back of the stage, scoops up her dress, switches sides: crouch, hip, twitch, tick, cha cha cha. On record she has a feverish desire to innovate and avoid stylistic repetition in her writing, and live this means that she flits from the animalistic barking of 'Pig Will Not' to the bluesy hip-swinging and maraca hands of 'Rope Bridge Crossing' to the grin and gusto of 'Leaving California' with seamless, childlike grace.
Parish, playing the guitar, banjo and ukele, is serene under his trilby and film noir style shadows. His music of slow beauty is tangibly similar, but turns into diverse themed worlds thanks to Harvey's lyrics. 'I slept facing the wall. You wanted less than I wanted', she sings in 'Passionless, Pointless'. This strict division of labour must have been thrilling for them both, and tonight you feel as he must have felt the first time he heard her sing a song like 'Cracks in the Canvas', as she asks 'How do we cope in the days after a death?' Not always autobiogaphical as assumed, it seems like Harvey is taking on the personas of the girls from albums past and present - Leah, Catherine, Elise, Erica, Angelene, with all their drama and character. They end with the extraordinary 'April', weird and beautiful and completely beguiling.
'Thank you for coming out tonight,' says Polly Jean. 'Thank you very much indeed'.
Slightly obscured but nonetheless lovely image from last night's gig, thanks to p_a_h's photostream under the Creative Commons Licence.