PJ Harvey released her ninth studio album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, last year, her first since 2011’s Let England Shake. The album, a concept work that deals with themes of poverty and gentrification, caused some consternation here in DC upon its release, as Harvey based several of the songs on a tour of the city (in particular Ward 7) which she took with Washington Post reporter Paul Schwartzman, and much of her commentary was less than flattering. While the controversy over the record was fairly short-lived, she has so far avoided the city in her extensive touring for the album. Whether that’s intentional or not is hard to tell, but DC fans that wanted to see her perform needed to take a road trip to The National in Richmond this past weekend (though she is coming to Wolf Trap, out in the Northern Virginia suburbs, on the next leg of the tour in July). Those who did make the journey saw a performer at the top of her game, and got to hear both new songs and several classics from her extensive catalog.
The show started immediately, without any opening act, with Harvey’s nine-piece backing ensemble entering the stage as a marching band, many of the band members playing drums and Harvey playing as one of several saxophonists. Once the band was on the stage they launched directly into “Chain of Keys,” the fourth song on the new album. Harvey, always a very dynamic performer, emphasized her words as she sang by swinging her saxophone around in one hand and gesturing out to the audience with the other. With a very strong group of performers backing her, including long-time collaborator John Parish, former Bad Seed Mick Harvey, and Gallon Drunk members James Johnston and Terry Edwards amongst others, Harvey tore through a blazing set which never let down the intensity.
A little less than half of the set was made up of songs from the new album, and the band played several more of those (including “The Ministry of Defense,” “The Community of Hope,” and “A Line in the Sand”) before playing a set of four songs from Let England Shake (the title track, “The Words That Maketh Murder,” “The Glorious Land,” and “Written on the Forehead”). The rest of the set intermixed several more new songs, including “Dollar, Dollar,” “The Ministry of Social Affairs,” and “River Anacostia,” with tracks like “The Devil” and “To Talk to You” (from 2007’s White Chalk), and “To Bring You My Love” (the title track of her 1995 album). The highlights of the set for many, though, were two of Harvey’s biggest classics, “50ft Queenie” (from 1993’s Rid of Me) and “Down By the Water” (also from To Bring You My Love). Harvey closed out the night with an encore of “Guilty,” a non-album single also released last year, and “Is This Desire?” from her 1998 album of the same name.