Live Review: PJ Harvey at the Masonic

The British blues-rock luminary stuck to her saxophone, her new albums, and the hits on Tuesday, May 9.

PJ Harvey (Credit: Geoffrey Smith)

PJ Harvey deserved better than the Masonic.

In a perfect world, the Brit would have entertained her at-capacity crowd of Gen X-ers on Tuesday, May 9, at the Fillmore. Her dramatic, slow burning set would have filled that space so beautifully and blossomed between its elegant red curtains. Hell, she probably would’ve sounded fantastic in any number of venues in the city, whether it was the Fillmore, the Regency Ballroom, or the Warfield, just to name a few.

Alas, it was the Masonic she played at.

If you’ve yet to attend the venue, thank your lucky stars. Once you make your way past the unsettling imperialist orgy of a stained glass window in the main lobby, you’re in for an overcrowded, uncomfortable, poorly-mixed nightmare. (I won’t rag on the drink prices, however, because drinks are expensive no matter where you go in this town.) The Masonic is quite possibly the worst sounding decent-sized venue in the city, and on Tuesday, all of Harvey’s perfect high notes were rendered shrill as they bounced off the plethora of hard surfaces.

But Harvey is a professional, and damn it, she tried. She strode onstage with her saxophone in tow, parading in formation with her eight-piece band. One of her drummers wore a shoulder-mounted bass drum; another rat-a-tat-tated away on a snare drum slung around his waist. It was all very ceremonial: the procession, the dramatic purple lighting, the military marching rhythm, the slow ascent of a geometric backdrop rising from the floor that cast angular shadows.

Harvey remained with her horn section while the rest of her musicians walked to their respective positions, hovering by the drum kit as she began the sweeping “Chain of Keys” on her saxophone. From the beginning, it was clear that Harvey was more intent on assuming the role of bandleader than lead singer. No complaints here: She’s a fantastic bandleader and has been since pretty much always. Keeping eight players – two-man horn section (joined regularly by Harvey), two drummers, a keyboardist, and three multi-instrumentalists whose duties included guitar, bass, keys, violin, and handheld percussion – in tight formation is no easy feat. Just short of 30 years into her career, it doesn’t even faze her.

Clad in leather pants, a voluminous purple blouse, and one of her trademark feather fasteners, Harvey led her band through several cuts from last year’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, including an extra powerful rendition of “The Ministry Of Defence.” Live or on the record, anti-gentrification anthem “The Community Of Hope” is a tad corny, but it did manage to get the people somewhat moving. Three songs in, it was apparent that Harvey was trying to play for the back row, who unfortunately responded with all the enthusiasm of storefront mannequins.

More cuts from The Hope Six Demolition Project followed: A rousing version of “The Wheel” that would have made a more enthusiastic crowd lose their shit, and a less impressive but nevertheless determined version of “A Line In The Sand.” The crowd clapped and whooped between songs and even roared with unbridled enthusiasm upon recognizing the opening notes of “Let England Shake” from her Mercury Prize-winning album of the same name. But once Harvey got into the full-swing of the song, barely anyone moved. It was, in a word, baffling. (The occasional plume of dispensary cannabis smoke that rose from the sea of heads on the floor probably didn’t help, but it doesn’t exactly explain the sedentary bodies either.)

Granted, Harvey has never been the type to write radio-friendly bangers or rock numbers guaranteed to trigger a mosh pit, but she struggled to maintain a consistent connection with her crowd that night. She barely spoke, save to introduce the band roughly an hour into the set, and offered a few endearingly jerky dance moves that Lorde might have looked to for inspiration while honing her own performance style.

That’s not to say it was a dud. She did manage to hold her adoring public rapt with the straight-to-the-gut bass drum throb of “The Words That Maketh Murder.” “50ft Queenie” – an oldie but goodie from 1993’s Rid of Me – packed one hell of a frantic blues rock punch. “Highway ’61 Revisited,” one of the best Bob Dylan covers probably ever and another Rid of Me highlight, opened the encore with powerful flair. If Harvey struggled to maintain consistency during the regular set, something about the five-minute encore break re-focused her energies. Bathed in white and yellow light, Harvey closed the show with “The Last Living Rose,” its triumphant stomp finally winning over her crowd enough to make them dance.

All the same, it was nice to have Harvey back in the Bay after a lengthy six-year break. It would have been nicer, however, if the sold-out crowd at the Masonic had been more eager and enthusiastic about her visit.

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