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The Sky Lit Up

Photo by Valerie Phillips

PJ HARVEY, THE BLACK HEART PROCESSION at the Henry Fonda Theater, August 15

Howlin’ bitch, orgy priestess, hot without being cute, huge without being big, PJ Harvey taps the badass arena blues and rocks flat-out all night. “Meet ze Monsta” announces it’s gonna be dirty; “It’s You” pours out the passion; “The Sky Lit Up” explodes a fusillade of brain bulbs; the rising rod of “50 Ft. Queenie” gets both butches and femmes buzzing. Squeezed into off-the-shoulder red, Harvey lashes her hair, whangs and slides her Firebird, wails wild while bashing a cymbal. “Speak to me the language of love,” she begs, and waves of echo tell you it ain’t the words, it’s the feel. The lighting, broad, varied and simple, peaks with a stark white background fronted by a dazzling glare that pops every physical feature into relief. It’s some package — few others attempt this combination of plot and abandon, much less pull it off.

Harvey inflicts maximum damage with the smallest of armies. Old pal Rob Ellis is a vicious drum punisher. Standing tall, Dingo pulls way down on bass. And Josh Klinghoffer truly grasps the essence of noise guitar. They interact, switch instruments, play like a band as Harvey loosely commands, at one point hugging up Don’t Knock the Rock organizer Tiffany Anders for a sing-along. It’s a pagan groove machine until a long-delayed encore, which teeters on the lip of chaos. Great.

San Diego’s the Black Heart Procession drop a spacious, plodding, near-Floydian sound that’s perfect for a live experience. Two keyboards, violin, driftheaded vocal melodies — and was that a theremin? Smoke all you want, though; they just have two speeds, slow and slower, and despite the nice textures it gets boring after a while. Good setup for Harvey, anyway, who once again proved she’s at least 50 feet tall.

EASY STAR ALL-STARS’ DUB SIDE OF THE MOON at the Knitting Factory, August 14

Translations and reinterpretations of the classics are inherently risky, whether it’s Beowulf or the Beatles. Stick too close to the original, and the venture veers toward pointlessness. Stray too far from the source, and the traditionalists will wallow in smug outrage. Popular music’s retellings are usually confined to cover songs and tributes, but complete albums are rarely recast. When the Easy Star All-Stars released Dub Side of the Moon last year, the potential for squabbling seemed ripe — until you pressed the “play” button. The disc revealed heretofore hidden links between Pink Floyd’s psychedelic masterwork and dub reggae’s spacious boombasticity.

The Easy Stars don’t just perform their chronic-iconic suite, they also connect it with some bong-bubbling (sub)urban folklore — the mysterious synchronicities between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. The multiple aesthetic streams continually shift one’s focus in brain-tickling and body-rocking ways — the live grooves rewinding and fast-forwarding with the mnemonic original sounds, the alternative soundtrack connecting to the familiar onscreen imagery being projected.

As the MGM lion mouthed its third roar, the octet launched into Nyahbinghi-style space travel on “Speak to Me” and “Breathe (In the Air).” Reverb and delay permeated Dorothy’s pores, while Ras I-Ray’s phat bass fluffed Toto’s fur. Tamar-Kali’s pure soprano wail floated through

“The Great Gig in the Sky” as the storm worsened, and Dollarman’s chat over “Money” provided patois subtext to Munchkinland. After the main event rumbled to a close with

a duppy-conquering “Brain Damage” and a panoramic “Eclipse,” the Easy Star crew encored with a miniset of conscious roots and dancehall as Oz still rolled. While the Cowardly Lion got primped, the sound-and-vision linkages randomized, the connections apparent only to those in deep sinsemilla therapy.

—Tom Cheyney

STEEL PULSE at the Roxy, August 15

Steel Pulse acknowledge that they evolved from the liberation politics of Bob Marley. Where Marley comes from a troubadour tradition, though, Steel Pulse uses intricate melodies, prerecorded samples, tightly segued medleys and rhythmic improvisation to express their brand of socially conscious, driving reggae. Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that Pulse started with their backup singers chanting the opening of Marley’s “Them Belly Full.” And if anybody is heir to the Marley legacy, it’s Steel Pulse’s lead singer, David Hind.

The eight-piece band was impressively energetic and tight. Older tunes such as “Rally Round the Flag,” “Tightrope,” “Taxi Driver,” “Ravers,” “Roller Skates” and “Chant a Psalm” stood on equal footing with tunes from the politically charged new African Holocaust. No song was copied from the record, and the singing was exquisite, with the two female backup singers bringing strength to the already formidable vocals of Hind and co-founder Selwyn Brown. Lead guitarist Clifford “Moonie” Pusey played searing and thoughtful melodies, not fill-in riffs. The rhythm section was definitive reggae, paying just as much attention to the spaces between the notes as to the notes themselves, moving toward the fundamental beat — the pulse — with precision and clarity that gave the messages of peace, justice, courage and love as much relevance today as they had 20 years ago.

Singer–acoustic guitarist Trevor Hall, a soulful vocalist in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews, opened with his three-piece backup band to play an ambitious set, with Pusey joining for an energized finale that showed the enormous potential of this emerging artist.

—Bob Reselman


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