at the Orpheum Theater, October 15
Polly Harvey waltzed onstage last night looking like Emily Dickinson after a rough wrestle in the meadow, hair mussed, wearing a floor-length white Victorian gown, its pouffy shoulders sprouting high above her frame. The word grow was scrawled vertically down her bodice. The erstwhile aristocrat, 38, smiled, glided past the upright piano, strapped on a ragged electric guitar and fingered out those first low, menacing notes of “To Bring You My Love.” “I was born in the desert. I been down for years. Jesus, come closer. I think my time is near.” And with that melody and those words, this little Emily became Howlin’ Wolf, deep, dark, scary, grunting and growling, stomping, kicking, denying. One woman, one guitar, lying with the devil, cursing God above, forsaking heaven, to deliver love.
Her stage was set up like a parlor or a sitting room, a throw rug in the middle, a rococo chair in one corner with an autoharp sitting on it. Elsewhere, a bawdy-looking bar piano, some guitars and keyboards, a lone cymbal, a little beat box. Over the next hour and a half, Harvey, often bathed in newspaper-yellow light, roamed from one to the other as if she were in for the evening and playing for friends. From the guitar, she moved to the piano, where she looked like a stagecoach mama sidling up for a little rag. She settled into a chair and strummed the autoharp, and looked like an Appalachian granny creaking out the low-country blues of “Down by the Water.” “I lost my heart, under the bridge,” she sang, cuddling the autoharp like a baby, gently rubbing its back. She jumped from place to place, song to song, from across her 16-year career — “Angelene,” “Man-Size,” “Shame,” “Snake” — each played with an austere insistence, wrestling with weakness and betrayal, confessing indiscretions. She was, in a word, remarkable.
Throughout the evening, Harvey showcased much of her new LP, White Chalk, a creeping, luxurious 11-song collection composed, unlike her previous six albums, on piano. The result is one of Harvey’s most accomplished works, crafted like a Shaker cabinet with meticulous lines and a sturdy frame, celebrating heaven with simplicity, keeping evil at bay through sheer force of will. “As soon as I’m left alone, the devil wanders into my soul,” sang Harvey, seated at the piano during “The Devil,” and she delivered the line with a weary resignation. On “The Mountain,” she conjured Nina Simone (whose music, fittingly, warmed up the audience before the show). And through it all, she held the audience’s collective heart in her hand, treated the Orpheum as though it were a living, breathing being. (At one point between songs, she called the theater’s chandeliers “the most beautiful eyes you could ever look into.”)
She closed the evening with “The Desperate Kingdom of Love,” from Uh Huh Her. As she stood in front of the mike, her voice, which captures a million different emotions in a million different ways, became a whisper, and her quiver silenced the room: “There’s another who looks from behind your eyes/I learn from you how to hide/From the desperate kingdom of love.” And with that, she smiled one more smile, took a bow and left the parlor.