PJ Harvey strode onto the Outdoor Theatre stage at Coachella Sunday night wearing a prim ankle-length white dress and holding an autoharp — not exactly your standard about-to-rock duds. But rock she did.
Backed by a nimble three piece band, Harvey, with the Strokes audible from the nearby main stage during the silences between songs, delivered the most emotionally intense performance I witnessed at this year’s Coachella, singing songs of violence, war, love and lust (mostly from her harrowing new Let England Shake), before a crowd of rabid supporters.
England isn’t a playful album, and its politically-oriented songs shaped the show’s fraught atmosphere. Harvey opened with the title track, which featured her singing in a high, warbling voice over the drone of her autoharp, calliope-like keyboard plinks, and brushed drums about her native land’s “dancing days being gone.”
She followed that with the recent single the “The Words That Maketh Murder,” on which she keened about mutilated soldiers. These lyrics may sound grim, but delivered by Harvey, the overall effect was something close to awe. She looked so fragile up on stage, small and thin, wielding the autoharp like a shield against her chest, rarely moving from behind the microphone stand, but she sang with a bemused grin on her face, as if privy to secret truths, and an almost elemental force.
She toyed with us, too, delivering her lyrics — always set to beautifully tuneful melodies — with incredible nuance. When Harvey repeated the shimmering “Written on the Forehead’s” refrain of “Let it burn,” it was impossible to know if she meant it as a warning or a dare. That ambiguity is Harvey’s great gift, and it’s her essence — she looks like a baby bird, but gives off the latent power of a bull. The tension slays.
There were moments during the performance, though, when her meaning hit like a fist. She swapped the autoharp for an electric guitar on the swampy “Meet Ze Monsta,” banging away at thick fuzzy chords against a sweaty, tribal drumbeat while ominously intoning “I’m not jerking / I won’t hide / Yeah I’m ready / Meet ze monsta tonight.”
“Big Exit,” from 2000’s brilliant Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, was just as lustful, as Harvey bellowed about guns and romance while her bandmates — all graying dudes dressed like country gentleman in vests and slacks — conjured a roiling blues-y haze.
About half-way into the set, the screens on either side of the stage showed a woman in the crowd holding a homemade sign that read, “PJ Harvey Is The Real Closing Headliner.” All due respect to Kanye, but she had a point.