PJ Harvey certainly knows how to make an entrance. Along with her nine-man band, the English singer-songwriter came marching out like the military to the beat of a snare and bass drum. Having skipped Toronto for her last two albums — 2007's White Chalk and 2011's Let England Shake — this was exactly the type of theatrical performance fans had waited 13 years for.
Decked in a deep purple ensemble complete with a dramatic, crow-feathered hat, Harvey cast an immediate and striking presence. She jumped right into material from last year's The Hope Six Demolition Project, first taking place with her sax midway back from the stage, in line with the band. Over the course of the night she would continually switch between frontperson and sax player, assuming those two duties with no sign of egotism.
For the first two songs, "Chain of Keys" and "The Ministry of Defence," she gripped the instrument at all times; if she wasn't blowing into it, she was holding it high, front and centre as she sang her protest songs into the mic. For "The Community of Hope" she put it down to vocally stress that "they're gonna put a Walmart here" before moving to the shuffling rhythms of "The Orange Monkey."
Harvey proceeded to play a trio of songs from Let England Shake, which felt like a nice gesture considering she never made it here for that album's tour. "The Words That Maketh Murder" inspired an audience clap-along, but it was her band that stole the moment, backing her up like a gang of seamen singing a shanty. She also graciously threw in "When Under Ether" and "The Devil," songs from her ghostly, piano-heavy White Chalk.
After delving back into The Hope Six Demolition Project with the graceful "Dollar, Dollar," Harvey finally acknowledged the sold-out crowd with a bow, after a long pause that produced "We love you PJ!" cheers. And then it was right into the loudest song of the night, a rousing version of "The Wheel."
With its dusty "That's What They Want" sample, "The Ministry of Social Affairs" transfixed the room thanks to a volatile sax coda by Terry Edwards who, I swear to God, nearly blew his own head off.
As the crowd was recovering from Edwards' blast, the band then launched right into Rid of Me's "50ft Queenie," which saw Harvey transform into a bad-ass rock star with all the right moves. She followed one classic with another, dropping the seething bass riff from "Down By the Water," which garnered the largest response from the crowd all night. Harvey got right into it as well, conjuring up the serpentine dance from the song's video, which inspired many in the crowd to do the same.
It was at this point that Harvey finally spoke. Saying a courteous "thank you," she introduced her band (two drummers, three saxophonists), which, among others, featured a handful of legends: Edwards on sax, Bad Seed Mick Harvey on keys and John Parish on guitars. They finished with "To Bring You My Love" and The Hope Six's haunting "River Anacostia," which closed the set like a book end, with the band quietly fading out the refrain from "Wade in the Water."
For the encore, Harvey went back to Rid of Me for a raw and raucous version of Bob Dylan's "Highway '61 Revisited," and then ended with an arresting performance of the minimal "The Last Living Rose," which she faded out with her lulling vocals.
With no opening act and virtually no dialogue in between songs, PJ Harvey and her band seemed focused on making this an experience as exhilarating, haunting and arresting as fans have come to expect. Their precision in playing these songs was awe-inspiring, even if Harvey's sheer presence alone was worth the price of admission. The wait for her return may have been long and arduous, but it was absolutely worth it.