P.J. Harvey readies for show time

September 19, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

On its first American tour, P. J. Harvey came across as a typical, if exceptionally good, alterna-rock act. Polly Harvey stood at the front, T-shirt clad and anchored behind the microphone with her guitar, while her bassist and drummer filled out the rest of the stage. She sang, they all played, and that was about it. Lighting and choreography were hardly a consideration.

Things couldn't have been more different when Harvey played the Academy Theater in Manhattan this spring, touring behind her current album, "To Bring You My Love." Not only was the band bigger -- with two guitarists and a keyboard player in addition to the bass and drums -- but the presentation was much more theatrical.

Taking the stage in a slinky red dress, Harvey came across as both siren and vamp, cutting to the heart of her material without seeming stagy. Watching her, one couldn't help but marvel at the intermingling of mystery and desire in "Down By the Water," and be swept up in the relentless propulsion of "Meet Ze Monsta." It was a stunning performance, touching on the power of myth and ritual without losing the visceral immediacy of guitar and drums.

"For me, it's a very natural thing," Harvey says. Speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Indianapolis, she explains that she has always been aware of the deeper aspects of rock and roll.

"Music has always been a very spiritual thing for me, and part of my sort of spiritual side is kind of inbuilt," she says. "It's not something that can be too premeditated or choreographed or anything like that.

"Performing is my life," she adds. "I really feel that I am a songwriter and a performer -- that's what I have to do. I have a compulsion to do it. And I don't feel satisfied without being able to do it. It's my life, and leading up to the performance, the sense of excitement and the challenge of expectancy is just overwhelming. That's when I feel truly alive."

Harvey is an instinctive artist, less concerned with technique than with unfettered emotional expression. That's not to say she cultivates a sense of amateurism in her musicianship. But she'd rather not become so adept at playing her instruments that the technique takes over when she's writing.

"I do a lot of drawing when I'm on the road, and most of the time, draw with my left hand, though I'm not left-handed," she says by way of explanation. "It's the same kind of thing. Because then you have to operate with instinct. It's not methodical. You don't know how to use that hand, and so you have to operate on a very different, more primitive level.

"The same thing comes when I'm writing on instruments. I choose not to study playing instruments, but just to teach myself, and teach myself in very basic means. It's all to do with feeling your way around, being responsive to your ear and your physical being rather than your mental one."

Harvey's sidemen, though, are far better schooled than she, and one of the most amazing things about their performance is to hear them play such lean, simple parts. "Well, believe me, it was hard to get them to do that," says Harvey, laughing.

"I have some fabulous musicians in my band. Joe Gore, for instance, is probably one of the most technically gifted guitar players I have ever come across. And yet I literally had to staple his hands to the guitar sometimes in rehearsal, and beg him to please play with one string and one finger. Playing very, very simple, one-note passages is the most difficult thing of all."

It works, though, and as the tour progresses, the playing just gets better.

"It is different every night, and it's changed a lot," she says. "It's operating a lot more now as a band, I think. We now know each other so well that it's very much six musicians making one sound together, whereas always at the beginning, everybody was playing their parts and it was very separate. I think now there's a real strength that comes through, just in the amount of time that we've spent together, and the playing that we've done together."

IN CONCERT

Who: P. J. Harvey, Live and Veruca Salt

When: Tonight, 6:30

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $21 lawn

Call: (410) 481-6500 for tickets, (410) 730-2424 for information

HEAR HARVEY

To hear excerpts from the P. J. Harvey album "To Bring You My Love," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6213 after you hear the greeting.

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