PJ Harvey took the stage at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater on April 14 wearing a neo-Victorian white gown, leather platform boots and a winged, feathered headpiece. Clutching an autoharp to her chest, she launched into “Let England Shake,” the title track from her new album, to the delight of nearly 3,000 fans. Upon hearing that mighty opening line — “The West’s asleep” — the audience stood, roared and swayed.
Even if you haven’t heard Harvey’s music, you’ve likely heard of her. The daughter of sheep farmers from southwest England, Harvey has been making music steadily since the early 1990s: 10 albums that range from punk blues to electronica. Though Harvey is known for songs about blunt, unapologetic desire, her latest album, Let England Shake, is more topical: a reaction to the pervasiveness of violence and the impact of conflict and war. While Harvey has never shied away from disturbing material, Let England Shake is her most political work to date.
On stage at the Warfield, with accompaniment that included her regular collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, the 41-year-old Harvey — with her jet-black hair and tiny frame — continues to look the part. Not too many rockers can sing about deformed children or soldiers falling “like lumps of meat” without sounding heavy-handed, but Harvey pulls it off. She departed from the powerful, gravelly voice for which she’s known, instead singing at a higher pitch in a more tender, folk-based style. Although at times it was difficult to hear her voice over the accompaniment (a rarity for a PJ Harvey performance), the effect was curious and satisfying.
While Harvey played some crowd favorites (“Down by the Water” and “C’mon Billy” among them), she stuck largely to new material, playing every track on Let England Shake. The majority of the audience seemed to know every word.
Her encore consisted of several poignantly placed songs. The first was “Big Exit,” in which she sang, “I just feel like it’s the end of the world.” And she closed with “Silence,” which includes the lines, “I freed myself! I freed myself!” Along with 3,000 other people in the room, both messages rang true.