“Tell you my name/ F U and CK/ 50 foot queenie/ Force ten hurricane!!”
I first heard Polly Jean Harvey belt those words–from her fuzz-soaked mantra “50 Ft Queenie” off her second album “Rid of Me”– live in 1993, at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. I was 14 then, a combat boots wearing Hollywood teen with anger over the death of my mom, who died when I was a kid, just brimming on the surface, ready to explode.
PJ Harvey embodied that anger. She harnessed it. She made it acceptable, accepted, real and true. Words steeped in sexuality, revenge, art and the blues surged through her. She was wiry, stylish and beautifully British. She was the main headlining act, the star, only a year after her 1992 debut “Dry” hit all of us with an onslaught of grinding, raw Telecaster rock ‘n’ roll and songs referencing the bible, desire and rejection, and filled with gut-clenching moans. Distinctly female moans. Radiohead opened for HER, not the other way around.
That show, and the very first time I heard “Dry,” hunkered down at age 13 in my best friend’s poster-covered apartment bedroom in Hollywood, changed my life. It certainly taught me two lessons. That women can and should express anger and voice injustice out loud, letting it hurl from inside their souls and bodies into the world, and that women can be sexual, smart and empowered as artists. In high school, with the band Bitch & Moan, I started covering Harvey’s saucy anthem “Rid of Me.” Her influence continues to drench my music now, including a video for my song “Cruel Hearted Woman.”
After years of seeing PJ Harvey live a dozen times, for 10 of her 11 studio albums, and 23 years after I first saw her at the Palladium, I felt awestruck again recently seeing her perform back-to-back in L.A. at the Shrine Expo Hall and the Fonda Theatre. Touring behind her overtly political new album “The Hope Six Demolition Project,” with journalistic odes to the lasting effect of war in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and poverty in Washington, D.C., she was, once again, a shaman of rebellion. She hadn’t played in the U.S. in almost five years, since 2011’s “Let England Shake.”
Armed with a saxophone, which she blows fiercely throughout “The Hope Six,” she stomped onstage in a slinky line with her nine-piece band. Dressed all in black, they droned in unison for the set’s first song, the album’s “Chain of Keys,” about a woman surrounded by dilapidation.
At the Shrine, Harvey wore a flowing short dress with sleeves that swept the floor. At the Fonda, she paired a hip-skimming leather skirt with a shiny feathered vest that she shed mid-way. Clothes both somber and revealing. The crowd roared every time she stretched out her long arms towards them, shifting her body in tiny twists and turns like a modern dancer. Song to song, she didn’t stop, except to introduce the band.
On “Rid of Me” and her earlier albums, Harvey’s bass-heavy, dark guitar was part of her thick rock armor. On her ethereal, introspective 2007 album “White Chalk,” she played quieter piano and keyboards. On “Let England Shake,” about England’s bloody roots, Harvey mastered autoharp. With “The Hope Six,” Harvey’s sax feels noisily defiant, like the songs themselves, adding another layer to her musical identity.
The Fonda, a smaller venue, especially allowed her to sing to the sweaty, packed audience with the passion I remember from that Palladium show. I stood up front, by the stage, thrusting my body next to other super fans, who almost cried when she played cool, elegant, bluesy, slow and longing tunes “Down By the Water” and “To Bring You My Love” from her 1995 breakout album “To Bring You My Love.”
Earlier, she stared towards the ceiling, her clear, soulful voice lifting up for “The Hope Six” song “Dollar Dollar,” detailing the story of a boy begging by her car. “The boy stares through the glass/ He’s saying dollar dollar/ Three lines of traffic past/ We’re trapped inside our car,” she sang, her mouth shifting sadly to the side.
Part of Harvey’s power as a storyteller is her ability to inject shades of poetic nuance into her words, through her 20s in the ‘90s, her 30s in the ‘00s, and being 46 now. Her lyrics, combined with a voice that swoons and growls, has always encompassed vulnerability and strength, and the broad, perfectly imperfect scope of what it means to be both a woman, and human.
By the time Harvey dove into “50 Ft Queenie,” one of the only older songs she played, the crowd was hysterically jubilant. Standing next to a woman who kept telling me, “I NAMED MY DAUGHTER POLLY JEAN!!!!,” I sang along, feeling gratefully, absolutely empowered, and jumped and screamed like I did that night at the Palladium at age 14.
Solvej Schou is a Southern California based writer-reporter and musician whose national stories have been published in outlets including The Associated Press, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard and Los Angeles Times. Formerly an EW senior staff writer and AP staff writer, she has interviewed a range of directors, actresses and artists, including Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Alicia Vikander, Jane Campion, Xavier Dolan, Chrissie Hynde, Aretha Franklin and Patti Smith. She sings, stomps, sweats and plays a Fender Strat. Her music can be found at CD Baby, Amazon, and iTunes.