First Night: PJ Harvey, Corn Exchange, Brighton

Through the darkness, Polly plays it for laughs

PJ Harvey has never been one to pointlessly bask in the limelight.

Judging by her interviews – and she doesn’t give many – she’d rather be sitting in her local in Dorset discussing the finer points of jam-making than giving it the big rock-star ‘I Am’. And so it is that she has given her friend and long-term collaborator John Parish joint billing for this latest tour in support their album A Woman A Man Walked By.

It’s rather touching that Parish has donned a bright red shirt lest we fail to pick him out of a band dressed in matching suits and trilbys. Parish may not be a star of Harvey’s stature, but he is certainly revered in musicians’ circles, a skilled multi-instrumentalist who has produced haunting arrangements for the likes of Goldfrapp, Eels, Sparklehorse and, of course, Harvey herself.

Their album is a follow-up of sorts to their 1996 joint effort Dance Hall at Louse Point. Neither LPs make for easy listening and yet – bravely and, some might say, dangerously – they have elected to play songs almost exclusively from them tonight. The opener “Black Hearted Love” (“When you call out my name in rapture/ I volunteer my soul for murder”) with its robust guitar-rock is about as accessible as it gets.

It could sit happily amid Harvey’s upbeat and comparatively commercial Mercury Prize-winning album Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. By contrast, “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen”, a spooky affair about playing hide-and-seek, opens with atmospheric banjo strums before building in hypnotic intensity with the addition of bass and drums. Later “The Soldier”, set against a simple arrangement of mouth organ and mandolin, proves an affecting tale in which Harvey sees herself as a warrior who walks “on the faces of dead women.”

There’s no disputing Parish’s contribution in all this – he does the music, she does the words. But even with the lurid attire he is content to let Harvey take centre-stage and act as enabler for her dark musings. It’s been said before but Harvey’s most obvious antecedent – in sound, intelligence and sheer force of personality – is the punk-poet Patti Smith. And as with Smith, there are moments during her perfomance when things go a little bit bananas.

It starts this evening when Harvey adopts a girlish whine for “Leaving California”, and then moves into booming actorly mode for “A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go” in which she berates some poor sap for his “lily-livered balls”, and stalks around the stage thumping her fists like the hammiest of Hamlets.

The song ends with her yelling at the man in question to stick it up, well, you get the picture. This is Harvey at her most challenging, though in this instance you suspect she’s challenging us to unclench our buttocks and not take her so damned seriously.