NEW YORK — No one ever accused Polly Jean Harvey of being too chatty.
In interviews she’s frequently aloof and non-communicative, and she didn’t have much to say to the sellout crowd Tuesday night at the Hammerstein Ballroom, where she opened a brief U.S. tour (see “PJ Harvey To Tour U.S. In September” ). On the three or four occasions when she spoke at all, she said little more than, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
But what PJ Harvey lacks in conversation skills, she makes up for in performance value. During her 90-minute set, she captivated the crowd, not with arena rock hijinks or punk rock confrontation, but with intimate, deceptively simple songs delivered with passion and sincerity to spare.
Dressed to kill in a skin-tight, red velvet top and a sparkly silver skirt, she flung her fists in the air during “Big Exit.” She prowled the stage and gesticulated dramatically on “Good Fortune,” cooed seductively for “Legs” and aggressively strummed a guitar on numerous tunes, including the show opener, the B-side “66 Promises.”
Spanning Harvey’s career, the set featured an even blend of clamorous rockers, progressive pop tunes and melancholy ballads. Harvey unveiled another new ditty, “30,” and revamped several older songs, including the unabashedly sexual “Dry,” which was embellished with purring cello. “Down by the Water” was accompanied by sparse, haunting piano and a Melodica, and “C’mon Billy” by wobbly guitar effects and a sweeping spaghetti-Western vibe.
The spotlight was on Harvey the entire evening, but she got able backing from her band — Laika’s Margaret Fiedler (guitar), Tim Farthing (guitar), Captain Beefheart’s Eric Drew Feldman (bass and keyboards) and longtime co-conspirator Rob Ellis (drums). They provided a confident backdrop of primal grooves and undulating rhythms over which Harvey writhed, whispered and howled.
The night’s strangest moment came after a powerful, provocative version of “This Is Love,” when a voice in the crowd repeatedly shouted, “The real Jesus is us!” Somehow, the fervor and surrealism of the comment seemed to fit the evening’s intensity and intimacy. Another odd touch was Harvey’s inclusion of “Nickel Under the Foot,” a song she wrote with Ellis for the Tim Robbins film “Cradle Will Rock.”
“Angelene,” from Harvey’s 1998 album, Is This Desire?, provided one of the evening’s most tender moments. “Beautiful Feeling,” which opened a five-song encore set, was similarly romantic.
The show’s real highlights, though, came during her more clamorous fare, including “Man-Size,” for which she stomped on an effect pedal to envelop the song in a dense gauze of distortion, and the encore number “Rid of Me,” which she performed alone onstage, surrounded by echoing guitar noise. The full band returned after “Rid of Me” and brought the pace down, closing the show with the majestic “Horses in My Dreams.”
Although the chattering crowd greeted him halfheartedly, opening act Moris Tepper set the night up perfectly for Harvey. The former guitar wizard for Captain Beefheart, who has since played with Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Waits and Frank Black, unraveled an intriguing set of shambolic, tumbling beats and quirky, artsy guitar squiggles designed for those who like their music challenging and filled with surprises.
His music featured the disorienting sounds of spaceships, rubber duckies and electronic wind chimes, but his songwriting still shone through the clutter.