PJ Harvey, with David J and Kristen Barry, at RKCNDY, last Saturday night.
English singer/songwriter PJ Harvey and her self-named band were showing some long-distance strain when they took the RKCNDY stage late Saturday night.
She had arrived from New York that morning, after a transatlantic flight the day before, and her voice wavered a little at the outset as it came on line with drummer Robert Ellis' in-the-bucket-thunk and Stephen Vaughan's slide-'n'-snarl bass.
But if the first verse of the opening "Water" felt like she was negotiating stepping stones in a stream, by the chorus Harvey was parting the Red Sea. It was a thundering mandate, her guitar staff-slapping its way from trick time changes to a boiling assault.
Harvey is slim and dark, almost a silhouette in her signature black leotard top, jeans and severely pulled-back hair. But her playing is as pumped, clenched and muscular as it is deceivingly delicate, and it's those instrumental dynamics, along with the coo and clamor of her compelling lyrics, that made her show the powerful performance it was.
Harvey wasn't much for between-song chatter. A smiled thank you or two, an apology for taking the time to tune her guitar and she was on with it.
She mixed selections from her debut release "Dry" with the as-yet unrecorded "Missed," the particularly primal "Me Jane" and the audacious redo of "Highway 61 Revisited." The latter was a waltz-time wail through Bob Dylan's tragi-comic Armageddon travelogue. Harvey's arrangement was brash and bold and went over especially well with the capacity crowd.
She closed the 60-minute set with two more yet-unrecorded songs. But despite their unfamiliarity, the emotional command of each song was immediate.
Harvey explores the pain, pleasure, anger and anguish of relationships, of her place within them. And her speedway thrust from warm-engine idle to full-throttle burn give her well-wrought words dimension, depth and distance. The only complaint: We didn't get to ride a little longer.
Openers David J and Kristen Barry were well received.