Last time Polly Jean Harvey came to New York City it was exactly one week before 9/11, with an album about hustling, rooftops in Brooklyn, and the poetry of the Manhattan skyline. At the time, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was just another rock album about New York City. But 9/11 seemingly changed the album’s molecular structure, so much so that it’s now impossible—at least for any New Yorker standing in the crowd of one of her concerts—to listen to Harvey perform songs like “The Whores Hustle And The Hustlers Whore” and not think that she’s referencing George W. Bush: “All around me people bleed/Speak to me your song of greed.” Playing again at Hammerstein Ballroom, one month before the November election and one block away from where Dubya’s minions gathered together for the Republican National Convention, it was easy to project the current political climate onto Harvey’s set list.
Harvey has never struck me as an explicitly political artist, but her lyrics are vague enough to welcome multiple interpretations; perhaps it’s the singer’s signature pain and badass moans and shrieks that appeal to something impressionable inside us all. Hell, even the chorus from a song as far back as “Dress” suggests that Harvey knows we all look different when we put on her music. After an opening set by San Francisco group Fork & Knife (it was kind of like seeing your mom singing at your high school prom), Polly forsook her fans with an awesome rendition of “To Bring You My Love,” followed by a steady mix of old and new material. Interspersed between the countless Uh Huh Her tracks were “oldies” like “Meet Ze Monsta,” “Down by the Water,” and “50ft Queenie” and more obscure items like “Reeling.” Indeed, there was something here for everyone, except maybe diehard fans of Is This Desire?, from which she performed just one song (“A Perfect Day Elise”).
Save for one guitarist who appeared to have raided Lyle Lovett’s closet before the show and seemed to unnecessarily upstage Harvey, she nonetheless rocked the house throughout, sometimes in unexpected places: The standout performance of the evening, next to “The Dancer” that is, may have been “The Life & Death of Mr. Badmouth” from Uh Huh Her. (Another song about Bush?) More shy than usual, Harvey was a little like a chicken with its head cut off in between songs, but her performance was spot-on throughout, and if the acoustics at Hammerstein sounded overblown in spots, that’s because I don’t think any space on Earth can truly house this much woman.