The pre-roll of blues music, meant to set a tone, could’ve been the foreboding instruct, a tell, of the bare-essential instrumentation of the PJ Harvey/John Parish set and band.
PJ Harvey, John Parish & Band, June 11th, Vogue Theater, Indianapolis
The pre-roll of blues music, meant to set a tone, could’ve been the foreboding instruct, a tell, of the bare-essential instrumentation of the PJ Harvey/John Parish set and band. In larger venues the sound system is the big brother, putting the band on its shoulders, carrying them. At the Vogue, a smaller venue, the squeaks and chirps of guitar straps and foot pedals became part of the mix. I’ve rarely been that close in sight and sound to musical performers I revere. There’s always been a distancer formula in play, the more you love a band, the farther you seem to be away from them.
When the band took the stage, they took notice of less-than-sold-out crowd. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of bands, in all cases those first looks out into the lights, the first engagement, you see the re-estimation of the performers, sliding the scales between their excitement, their professionalism, what they expect to do and what the crowd might give them back. PJ, with her intoxicating and sly smirk/smile gazed up, glazed over, and the band began their set with “Black Hearted Love,” the single from their new record. The choice pointed to a band “on tour,” they have records to sell and might have considered this smaller market unfamiliar with their history, reminding them of who they are by playing the pop single. John chose a spot, up in the balcony, slightly to his 1 o’clock, to squint towards as if stretching to greet an old friend while tweaking a pained internal wound, to both seek the ghost and devise it.
The crowd was eclectic, and from the floor looked like more people hid in the wings or back or up in the balcony than came forward to address the band (except for one drugged couple near the stage making out throughout the set, or the teetering drunk few who yelled at each other about nonsense throughout the quiet songs). I wondered whether PJ had become a novelty, an icon for the alt scene, drawing this audience to the show for the spectacle rather than for the music. Towards the end of the set a young man, intent on filming a whole song on his blackberry stepped in front of most everyone, held his hands up high to capture the scene. His distance from the reality of the moment, and everyone else, stung me as a symptom of our reality-show era. One of the zealous security guards (who were bent on locking down this very passive crowd) asked him to stop and he retreated back to the safety of the dark corners.
PJ and John made modest notes of the small ruckuses either by slowly closing their eyelids, tilting their heads slightly down or away, or seeking their own clarity by gazing within the spotlights. Few people danced though all were very appreciative with their applause. Some fans created t-shirts for PJ, delivering them to her towards the end of the set. There was less gratitude for John, though standing next to the smoldering dollishly-suggestive affliction that is PJ Harvey is a tough partner to hold up to. The sounds of John Parish, the half-broken wood-saw rhythm-boom of his guitar tone, wash over you, pushes you back a bit, but doesn’t mean to intrude. He’s the cool brother, the distant uncle, the nice chap who is so understated you can’t tell if he’s having a good time or miserably resigned. I can’t get over the combination and his pairing with PJ. You expect them to explode under their intensity. You want to be their best friends, want to take care of them, cook them dinner. As a musician I want to play in their band, to play with them, to make songs with them.
By the third song PJ decided she needed to drive the show. The band was next going to Chicago and a probable room of intense faithful, and could’ve mailed in this performance, but she didn’t. Glancing at her band-mates, her dancing became more animated, inviting the crowd to join her through her forward motion steps. The band took notice and picked it up. More people entered the dance floor, and although the crowd seemed more intimidated than open hearted, the energy of the room tilted favorably. The rest of the show breezed by, I remember snap-shot candids of PJ’s expressions, John’s hands, the drummer’s bob, and the old-world muteness of Eric Drew Feldman and Giovanni Ferrario. The band closed out the performance with a couple of John’s songs, a grateful touch, a tip of the hat.
Looking back at last night, I feel that show was more of a conversion ceremony, a renewal of vows, than recital. A reminder that personal dissonant songs are celebrations as well as anti-dotes, invigorating as well as thought-provoking, and that the greatest lesson the blues can teach us is that the reward for sharing your soul’s depth is much greater than the bitter malaise of keeping it all to yourself.