Anyone with doubts about the '90s resurgence had them laid to rest at SXSW this year, where a long list of the decade's biggest acts tried out new material or trotted out old hits for kicks. The list of these performers makes me nostalgic for the simpler days of 120 Minutes and Doc Martens with dresses: Metallica, Marcy Playground, Dinosaur Jr, Crystal Method, Primal Scream and Tori Amos, with Peter Murphy and Echo & the Bunnymen on the margins of the decade's influence.
The latter half of the Saturday night lineup at Stubb's BBQ might have seemed like the most egregious example of retro rehash. Just before a set by folkies the Indigo Girls(!) and emo-kid patron saints Third Eye Blind (!!!) was a rare U.S. date from PJ Harvey and John Parish. However, anyone hoping for Harvey's MTV glory days would be disappointed, because the long-time musical foils stuck mainly to new songs from A Woman a Man Walked By, a collaboration album due in stores tomorrow.
Anyone disappointed by Harvey's performance on Saturday is also, frankly, a complete idiot. Clad in a white dress with belts wrapped around it, a spray of peacock-like feathers and stylish black pointy shoes, the reed-thin Harvey was every bit the theatrical, mesmerizing performer. Although limited somewhat by an unorthodox stage set up - keyboards were on the far left and a wall of speakers/amps sat in the center where the drums usually are, with the kit set up on the far right instead - she obviously felt the music in a primal, spiritual way.
Her movements were deliberate and forceful, but not harsh; Harvey is almost liberated from her body onstage, consumed by what she's singing, a mere vessel for the lyrics and stories she's intoning. Just watching her shriek, wail, coo, scream and shimmy onstage was an emotional catharsis, a vicarious emotional release that was gasp-inducing raw.
Like the songs on their first collaboration, Dance Hall at Louse Point, new Parish/Harvey tunes such as "Black Hearted Love" and "A Woman A Man Walked By" - the latter of which found Harvey spitting the phrase "Just to get up your fucking ass!" - were feral, clashing rockers. Other moments were as fragile as fine china, songs so delicate that chattering conversation drowned out Harvey's voice and the instrumentation. A full band easily handled the dense music, although Harvey shook a maracas fiercely at certain points for emphasis.
The final song, "Pig Will Not," found her stalking around the stage screaming, "I WILL NOT!" over and over again, like a child having a temper tantrum. After the tentative, frail atmospheres of her last solo album, White Chalk - and the emotional malaise of 2004's equally sluggish Uh Huh Her - seeing and hearing Harvey full of spit and venom once again was reassuring. The take-no-prisoners femme fatale of the '90s surfaced once again, although emboldened by wisdom and experience.
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