PJ Harvey challenges with material, mood swings

Saturday's show at the House of Blues featured PJ Harvey (center) performing songs from her partnership with John Parish (right). Saturday's show at the House of Blues featured PJ Harvey (center) performing songs from her partnership with John Parish (right). (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / June 9, 2009
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Water is a recurrent image in PJ Harvey's music. Whether that water is destructive, redemptive, or simply an element in a larger picture, it flows readily.

Saturday night at the House of Blues the British singer-songwriter and guitarist John Parish, her frequent producer and collaborator, opened the spigot and let loose a steady stream of tunes that moved from placid to choppy to downright tumultuous in an intriguing 80-minute performance.

If there were fans in attendance hoping that Harvey would play material from her non-Parish albums, she let them know fairly early into the set that that was not the agenda for the evening.

Instead, the pair, and a three-man backing band-including longtime Harvey sideman Eric Drew Feldman, focused exclusively on the fruits of their partnership, diving into some of 1996's "Dance Hall at Louse Point" and all of the recent release "A Woman a Man Walked By."

As the albums swear only partial allegiance to pop music constructions, the show followed suit with wild mood swings within and between songs beginning with the jagged guitars and eerie atmospherics of "Black Hearted Love."

The only constant was the notion of how quickly things could change. During "Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen," Harvey would be trilling, her head voice soaked in reverb as Parish plucked his banjo jauntily, and then the band would crash in, building up a wall of spooky, funky sound anchored by rumbling, tribal drumbeats.

The lyrical images were equally striking as Harvey created worlds familiar and alien. A dangerous boy drives a woman around in a shiny red car and then out of her mind on the mondo Led Zep-meets-white-noise groove "Taut." A mother copes with the drowning of her son on chilling "Chair." And in the wrenching "Passionless, Pointless" a couple wrestling with waning affections face the walls instead of each other.

Harvey gave her voice box a workout, soaring in her high register for "Leaving California" and getting her cathartic screams and whoops out during the set-closing stomper "Pig Will Not," a tantrum set to music.

The encore included Parish taking a turn at the microphone for the urgent country gallop "False Fire" as Harvey, gracious and bouncy all night, swanned around the stage in her billowy black dress dancing with abandon.

PJ HARVEY AND JOHN PARISH At: House of Blues, Saturday

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