Melody Maker - 22nd August 1998
Live Review From Rock ‘Oz’ Arenes
Avenches, Switzerland

It’s close to midnight and the temperature has finally slipped into the teens. The sun’s been baking the tiered stone seating of this Roman Amphitheatre all day, so that we can sit here comfortably now, a perfect night sky stretched overhead like an ink-soaked sheet. It’s pretty impressive. And it’s hard to remember that weekend entertainment in Avenches was once rather more brutal and bloody, with a fair few Christians being made to miss their Sunday service.

Plenty of people regard an evening with PJ Harvey as a kind of Roman holiday. Because, in a way, she’s made misery her muse, lending an ear to the dark, mute side of the soul and giving it a voice ñ her voice. The expulsive, guttural howl, the gentle entreaty, the hoarse, sexually charged rumble, the semi-operatic shriek- they’re all Polly Harvey, and they’re mostly packed with pain, fearfully strong, but so raw and anguished that thrilling to her blood pumped expression can feel like being found on your knees at her bedroom door keyhole.

It’s a great place to be, of course. And tonight it’s like being there again, breath held, anxious to see how she’s doing after her recent dark years and dying to clock her latest disguise. Well, Polly Harvey is doing just fine. In fact, she’s fabulous, having shed both the Forties movie starlet and Glam tranny personae in favour of well, herself!

She comes on in killer pink stilettos, a shimmery, sheath-like knee-skirt, tiny black cardigan and wide smile, her hair a wild bob, and stands silent at the mike while the beaters start their meaty work on the drums, and blues guitar begins to keen gently behind. The Voodoo heaviness builds slowly, storm clouds gather and then that voice, guttural as Regan in ‘The Exorcist’ and twice as scary, comes growling out in ‘I Think I’m a Mother’ still as powerful a chant as The Beatles ‘Come Together’ ever was.

Tonight’s set dips equally easily into the forthcoming album, ‘Is This Desire?’, and ‘To Bring You My Love’, with the demonised swing of ‘Hook’ and exhilarating encore ‘50ft Queenie’ blasts from the past.

There’s a rollicking stomping ‘Joy’ with PJ throwing what weight she has

From perilous pink heel to pink heel; the mad, jabbering, white jazz of ‘Taut’ with it’s skewered mix of Sonic Youth and Nick Cave styled gothic; the surprising hip hop rhythm and Suicide-like keyboard distortion of her comeback single, ‘A Perfect Day, Elise’, where PJ sings with her newly light and lovely voice; ‘Catherine’, where she finds yet another self in Forties jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday’s tender whinny, the gradual build to a brutal and rapacious ‘Meet Ze Monsta’, with Polly giving maracas and tambourines some serious stick. A vicious and bloodied ‘Long Snake Moan’ and a rendition of ‘To Bring You My Love’ which is positively biblical, P J ‘s sensual force sending the words forsaken and cursed and cast out of heaven rippling around the amphitheatre to chill the 5,000.

A flash flood of rosewater, seraphim descending on golden clouds and a hail of burning snakes seem the only fitting follow-ups.

This is the sound of desire. This is P J Harvey. Time to fall in love again.

Sharon O’Connell