A PJ Harvey Concert

It was a Friday night a week ago when we went to the much anticipated PJ Harvey concert, my husband John, his friend Glen and myself.  Midsummer in Sydney it was a warm, inky twilight as we ate a dinner at a Chinatown restaurant and then walked on towards the International Convention Centre near Darling Harbour.  Our tickets on our mobiles were scanned by a bevy of security guards, one of who told me that my innocent steel water bottle had to go to the cloak room for the night.

Seated inside the vast auditorium with its subdued lighting and misty swirling air, we were a just a few of a mighty swarm of bees buzzing with a low, but powerful tone in the rows and rows of seats that slanted upwards from the stage and the crowded mosh pit.  Much of the audience were Gen-Xers in their forties, greying, but still defiantly young, dressed in jeans, moderately radical shirts and tees, tattoos and the women, some in gothic inspired dresses fluttering here and there bearing plastic cups of beer or other alcoholic beverages down the stairs to the concrete floored mosh-pit and back again chatting animatedly amongst themselves and occasionally embracing a friend.

Nick Cave was due to play at the same venue the next night, John remarked.  PJ Harvey and Nick Cave had had an affair.  I wondered how they would work together and here is their beautiful and melancholy duet Henry Lee.  But the affair ended.  PJ said later that she was so upset that she was going to give up making music and become a nurse.  But somehow she went on playing and composing music, the anti-war ‘Let England Shake’ and now the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, where hope in mankind’s future seems just about dead on the ground – to judge from the lyrics.

Not that I knew anything about this new album when the lights went dark and the band began to file onto the stage drumming, PJ Harvey amongst them brandishing a saxophone.  John said it was ‘Chain of Keys’.  The ten musicians took their places, PJ fronting the audience with her microphone, dressed in flowing, gauzy black robes, her fine straight hair loose, crowned with a black head-dress.  The rest of the band wore somber, dusty and rumpled looking black jackets and trousers.  At this juncture, John pointed out Mick Harvey, the musician at the keyboard, and said he was really good and had previously worked for some time with Nick Cave.

PJ has a distinctive voice.  On her albums, it is soft, silvery and so fragile it almost appears ready to break.  It is a two-coloured voice, veering from a deeper set of keys to a higher octave and very tunefully at the same time.  But live, at the concert, her voice sounds very powerful and rides above the band’s wave of music with perfect confidence.  Too, she sings with great feeling as she moves in complete accord with the rhythm, her hands delicately drawing and weaving the meanings of her music into a unity of sound, beat, voice and drama.

She moved with grace, like a muse or even a priestess, gliding quietly every now and then to the back of the stage near the drummer to take up a saxophone and play in company with the other saxophonist.  She has said she likes to keep challenging herself with learning how to play new instruments, which illustrates not only her creative energy, but also her respect for the other players in her band.

Much of what she played came from her new album the ‘Hope Six Demolition Project’, with songs such as the opening ‘Chain of Keys’, ‘The Wheel, ‘River Anacostia’, ‘Medicinals’, ‘The Orange Monkey’, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs’ which sounded compelling, emotive and powerful on the stage although she also sang songs from other albums like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’, one about taking a child home and another about doing black deeds for love.  And I have to marvel at how she seemed to utterly best the comparatively subdued and rehearsed studio performance of her album with the crashing waves of her live act.  It was dynamite.  No danger of having a diva lip-synching here.  This was the real deal.

‘How good was the band!’ Glen exclaimed when the concert ended and the sated swarm of people were moving back out into the city night, twinkling with lights reflecting in the calm, black waters of the harbour.  Throughout the performance, PJ and the band emanated a sense of quiet and harmonious co-operation and camaraderie, she fading in and out to become one of them.  Three-quarters of the way through, PJ had introduced the musicians to the audience to applaud one by one, the drums, electronic keyboard, saxophone, guitars, before they all nonchalantly dipped into the last of the set for the night.  They had a standing ovation and after a while were back with two more great songs before they finally bowed out and filed quietly backstage and the lights went back on.

The lyrics of her new album are dark and pessimistic of human nature, echoing perhaps what she saw on a trip through third world countries, as well as the US she took with a photographer Seamus Murphy between 2011-2014, which appeared in The Guardian (never mind some of the rude reader comments).  Amid such wastelands as Afghanistan and also Washington DC (the US is a wasteland of a different kind), she appears to wonder whether humans have a future at all with lines like:  ‘…hey little children don’t disappear. (Heard it was 28,000)’ and ‘they’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic/And balanced sticks in human shit’.

The music she sets her lyrics to can be comforting, but only to remind us of what we’ve lost in the scramble for ‘advanced’ civilisation – as in the song ‘Medicinals’.  She juxtaposes the ancient healing herbs that grow wild in America that say ‘we are always here’ against the image of an indigenous woman in a wheelchair at a shopping mall drinking alcohol.  This song suggests that the loss of the natural environment is a loss to humanity, to culture and causes a mental sickness that nothing can cure.

Her occasional traditional tunefulness amidst broken but strong rhythms that veer between blues, reggae and rock and roll form a kind of unique and off-beat chaos that is PJ Harvey.  For instance, ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’ has a compelling rhythm that changes tempo in odd ways and it is this rhythm that underlies the utter gravity of this anti-war song.  Her gentle, fay, but infallible voice rides above her music and in the drumming energy, there is a kind of fatalistic sadness and deep emotion, as in the chorus ‘…and watch them fade out…’ of ‘The Wheel’.

In an interview with the Irish Times, the eponymous man of science Professor Brian Cox wonders whether the human race may destroy itself before it gets any further:  ‘Cox believes it all hinges on “our ability to take global decisions”. Civilisations “get to the point where they can destroy themselves, they will get to the point where they can change the climate by industrialisation – and that requires your civilisation to be global in decision making. In 2016, we’ve gone backwards.”.

Perhaps we ultimately may not be able to reconcile our superior intellect, and complex reasoning and moral faculties with our essentially animal and warlike nature.  Are we doomed?  With the Doomsday Clock ticking another 30 seconds towards midnight, PJ Harvey just goes on making and playing music, underlining injustice, waste and inhumanity in the extraordinary energy of her songs.  There are many who are listening and over the megalomania and war and pollution roiling in the world today, our collective voice of reason may yet prevail.

Back in the 1970s when ‘The Bomb’ was a foreboding term echoing the cadence of the end of the world, I saw a cartoon with the caption:  ‘Man demonstrates his superiority over animals’.  Before an animal, a man with his great brain was in the act of detonating himself with a remarkable piece of technology that he had made.  The great artist and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci saw hundreds of years ago that mankind would one day hold the power of life or death over every living thing on earth.  That day has arrived.

Pop Trivia Day

I really have more important things to do and because of that I’ve been engrossed in the public argument between the veteran singer Sinead O’Connor and the brash, young pop star Miley Cyrus.  What the hell it’s Saturday, sunny but mid-spring cool outside and I’ve slept in, had breakfast, had lunch, haven’t gone out and am just doing what I fucking well like.

Over the past weeks, I’ve been reading about Cyrus’s notoriously provocative antics at the MTV Video Music Awards 1913 and all the online commentary.  Then she released her single ‘Wrecking Ball’ to a routinely naughty video, citing O’Connor’s iconic song ‘Nothing Compares 2U’ as an influence.  Apparently unwilling to endorse Cyrus’s product,  O’Connor penned an open letter ‘in the spirit of motherliness’ to Cyrus advising her of the perils of provocative antics in the harshly exploitative and perfidious music industry and of the danger it represents to young women in everyday life.

You would think a heedless, vacuous chit like Cyrus would just tell her to stick it, but she did worse than that.  She tweeted a screen grab of O’Connor’s public battle with a serious mental illness and made a mockery of it – and a mockery of her lone, brave protest against the Catholic Church’s history of child abuse years before the evil spilled out of the closets into full public disclosure.  It was a cruel, demeaning gesture and offensive to people suffering from mental illness everywhere.

O’Connor hit back with threats of legal action as she pointed out the damage this rehash of her bi-polar episode, with the suggestion that it was current, was doing to her career.  Movingly, she said how hard it is to get work when people assume you are mentally ill.  But Cyrus is blithely sitting on a fortune, her latest output parading around the tops of the pop charts and her spangled, uncaring, blaring, laughing bandwagon moves on.

Why do I care?  Well for one thing, this isn’t news about the devastation of wars, pollution or people dying.  It’s news for the living room, for people like me living in comfortable, ordinary suburbia with regular problematic jobs to go to on Monday and the weekly shopping to do sometime soon.  It’s something to think about:  whether there is justice in the world or such a thing as karma.  Are passionate, idealistic, creative individuals like O’Connor forever doomed to be scratching for a living, or can we see it that she is in some way mightily blessed?  That her life, full of unhappy struggle and thrown in the dirt as it was, is nevertheless a true, beautiful and authentic one?

To the Love of Jazz

Thanks to my new smart-phone and Pandora application, where you can tune into radio stations that specialize in different kinds of music, I’ve taken to listening to Jazz. I like turning it on after hours in the evening, often when I’m doing some writing but today I’ve got it on in broad daylight because I’m sick with a cold and need to stay indoors and rest.

What is it that I suddenly like so much about Jazz? I love the mellowness of saxophone, the fresh, electric, off-beat rhythm, the light, tinkling dance of the piano. Whether just relaxing and listening to it or doing something with jazz in the background it sounds so soothing to my state of mind, lifting me out of blue, sad moods and looking at the world in a lighter, happier, more laid-back way.

When I’m tired, it comforts with a drink and a soft, velvet couch in a stylish little bistro while I listen to the gentle tones of a piano as it winds its soft, exploratory way around the doors and walls and ceilings that lie amidst place, time and space. I don’t even need to drink or go anywhere, just listen and my imagination does it for me. The music alone is a leisurely sip of the purest cognac in a soulfully deep, crystal glass.

Jazz speaks to me in lots of different ways. It could be ironic, evoking visions of hard-bitten cops in the 1970s driving around in cars in dusty, desolate bitumen paved streets in run-down suburbia and pummeling criminals. Or it could speak to me about the whole of modern life itself, as I have known it from the age of 7, when I first saw the cubist art of Picasso such as his ‘three musicians’ and experienced the topsy-turvy world of dreams about many things I perceived and not yet understood as reality danced, tangled and untangled itself into a multitude of new meanings before my eyes.

Painting of Three Musicians

Three Musicians, Picasso

Jazz is a place in the modern 20th century and onwards world where minimalism, abstraction, angles of buildings, the colours of paint on the walls, electric lights in white paper globes shone over gold-coloured carpet matting, the lives of other people, and a life comfortable enough to perceive these things set themselves to this strange, energetic, wayward new music.

Jazz has aged well and always sounds fresh, now and welcoming, even when it has a vintage feel. It’s music with a past, present and future. A successful jazz musician can be any age and often they get better with age. Whereas a lot of older rock and roll musicians are having a hard time staying relevant these days, the quiet achievements of the greats of jazz are revered and they keep their lustre and their listening power. Successful Jazz musicians have also been virtuoso players in classical music before they turned to jazz, like the guy who did the wonderful ‘Cantaloupe Island’, so it’s deeply serious music and steeped in greatness. Wikepedia reminds me it’s Herbie Hancock.

Forgive me, I’ve only newly fallen in love with Jazz and am not au fait with the names of the compositions I particularly like apart from my long-time appreciation of the singer Billie Holiday. But the Pandora application is a wonderful thing that tells me about the composer/s while it’s playing the tune, so I’m learning and I keep on playing it and enjoying it.