Let Fishtown shake: PJ Harvey rocks the Fillmore


PJ Harvey made her entrance at the The Fillmore on Friday night as one - and the only female - member of a 10-member, single-file marching band.

Snare and bass drums were struck, and Harvey, looking like an apocalyptic wood sprite in an elaborate headdress, was one of three black-clad saxophonists who took their places at the back of the stage in front of two drum kits.

But then, of course, the charismatic front woman stepped up and took a hold of the sold-out crowd at the Fishtown venue, not letting go for the ensuing, supremely efficient and dramatically staged 90 minutes.

Performing in front of a backdrop that showed a two-headed dog tussling with a goat on either side of a PJ Harvey coat of arms, the galvanic British songwriter, who was making her first Philadelphia appearance in six years, drew heavily from her 2016 album The Hope Six Demolition Project and its similarly geopolitically minded 2011 predecessor Let England Shake.

On Friday, Harvey made Fishtown shake with songs that rumbled low with primordial bottom-heavy blues grooves and squawking sax. She also drew on more delicate folk traditions on tunes such as “The Words That Maketh Murder” and the set closing “The River Anacostia,” performed with all the band members, aligned at the front of the stage, singing the sorrowful laments gospel-touched “wade in the water” incantation.         

The Hope Six album is an enterprise inspired by Harvey’s fact-finding trips to impoverished and war-torn communities in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. For all of Harvey’s abundant talent and singular voice, the recording project - which also produced The Hollow Of The Hand, a poetry and photography book collaboration with Seamus Murphy - at times suffered from clinical, journalistic detachment.

In a concert setting, however, songs like the playful, hand-clappy “The Orange Monkey” and hard-driving and haunting “The Wheel” - a powerful examination of how humans immunize themselves from violence that surrounds them - came to vibrant life.

A rock star and then some, Harvey is a magnetic presence and a superb bandleader. Most of her men-in-black, who included longtime collaborator John Parish and Nick Cave associate Mick Harvey (no relation),  played multiple instruments and looked nearly as cool as she did during the intelligently choreographed  and imaginatively lit presentation, which created a Halloween rock-and-roll carnival atmosphere.

Harvey is not an artist to dwell on the past, and the bulk of the 20-song set came from the last decade of the 47-year-old, still-potent vocalist’s quarter-century career, with two songs from 2007’s White Chalk.  

But though the newer material went over more than well enough with the loyal audience that’s been moving into middle age right along with her, Harvey really brought the house down with a trio of elemental powerhouses from her 1990s beginnings, with the creepy saga about drowning a child “Down By The Water,” operatic expression of devotion “To Bring You My Love” and declaration of her superpowers in “50ft Queenie,” in which all of the musical restraint of the evening was cut loose in a burst of satisfying screechiness.

All that, plus an encore that kicked off with a cover of another songwriter with a taste for Biblical and mythic imagery. It was Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” which she originally recorded on her 1993 album Rid Of Me, and which she reshaped in a caterwauling version that was, naturally, entirely her own.

We don’t want to be rid of you, Polly Jean Harvey: Please come back sooner rather than later.