Concert Review: PJ Harvey
San Francisco
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Like Chrissie Hynde's bad-tempered daughter, like an ancient Cretan priestess whose permanently angry gods are at her beck and call, like every man's black-haired nightmare of the women he treated badly, PJ Harvey rises from the collective unconscious, carrying with her all the rage, frustrated sexuality and raw power of mistreated women.

I don't often go to see musicians the second time around on the same tour, but Harvey's first show was so riveting and unexpected, I had to visit the Warfield Thursday night to find out if her wonderful May 19 show was just a fluke. It wasn't - and in fact, in many ways Thursday night's show was better.

All the primal emotion was still intact, but Harvey has become comfortable with her band and with her role as guitar-less front woman. She has discarded the stark makeup and the white dress, but has retained her to-the- point sexuality and almost eerie stage presence. (If she had live snakes entwined around her arms it wouldn't seem out of place at all.)

When she has everything going -- as on "Long Snake Moan" or "50 ft. Queenie" or "Down by the Water" or "Meet Ze Monsta" -- she's as compelling a musician as there is today. Her band, led by guitar ace Joe Gore, is crisp and tight after more than six months on the road, and the layers of sound, often added one by one, mesh like the wheels of fate in high gear.

That sense of inexorable judgment is a great part of Harvey's music, which has a significant religious component. Like Leonard Cohen, she makes a serpentine connection between sex and the sacred, tangled and twisted in lines like "Lain with the devil, curse God above, forsaken heaven, to bring you my love."

The impact of such stark imagery is greatly helped by Harvey's vastly improved singing. She is much more confident, much more articulate as a singer (though she still doesn't talk to the audience much), and for the first time in the three times I've seen her, the words were easy to understand.

She also doesn't fool around, keeping songs short and to the point. The arrangments are simple, but hint at secrets -- some revealed, many hidden.

That kind of depth is what makes her special, for few songwriters have much more to offer than surface sweetmeats about love and broken hearts. Harvey's music resonates to the scary rhythms of the subconscious, and the new songs she played Thursday showed no change in direction.

That said, Harvey does face one difficulty. If the territory she's staked out is too small to allow her sufficient variety, both emotionally and musically, she may wind up trapped in a repetitious groove. As it is, it would be very hard for her to translate her intimate, low-energy songs - of which there are many - to a much larger hall than the cozy Warfield (which seats rabout 2,500), and those intimate songs are the necessary setting to make the more energetic ones successful.

At the Warfield, though, Harvey is in her element. Even the second time around, when my expectations were much higher, she proved her power and her worth. She is the most original and unsettling female voice of this generation of songwriters, and only bad luck can keep her from a long-term place at the head of the rock and roll table.

Ben Harper opened the show, sounding like Richie Havens.

(On record, he sounds like Tracy Chapman.)

Unfortunately, Harper can't tell when too much is too much, and his songs, solos and vocal elaboations are all much too long. Havens was a folk singer, and so is Harper, and folk music is driven by narrative, not lengthy grooves. If Harper can stick to the song, and lose the five-minute solos, he's got a good chance to be more than an opening act.

Transmitted: 95-10-19 10:25:32 EDT

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