|IT'S almost impossible
to get a fix on these two artists. That this is one of THE tours of the
year is indisputable. PolIy Harvey's current album - as heady and accomplished
as it indisputably is - sounds ultimately empty. lt's almost as
if now she has no more experiences to draw on nor demons to exorcise, she
tells stories instead. But we loved her for her ability to articulate women's
feelings, and all the attendant hatred, joy, disgust, love - tumed - sour
- and - all - crusty - in - the - mouth. Didn't we?
What are we to now make of this shimmering, semi - transparent, painfully thin creature, waggling her arse provocatively in THAT red dress, shorn of guitar (she now has a pick-up band behind her, including a Fatima Masion, one of Tom Waits' backing musicians and a bow-tied drummer-damn fine, as it happens), now and then shorn of emotion (she picks the oddest of places, the oddest of songs to smile in, to show her enjoyment, disconcerting indeed when you consider many other songs still have the arid stench of decay aboutt hem) fully in control, putting on a storming show, yet never giving of herself?
The differences between PJ Harvey and Tricky are striking. Both are talented artists wanting to effect change, yet Polly's music, the tradition she's coming from, is directly confrontational (which is why her transition to story-teller is weird and needs time).Tricky is way more insidious, his music eats away from the inside, it becomes part of you. Polly's songs are way more stand-offish. You admire PJ Harvey, but you wouldn't want to know her; with Tricky, you have a feeling you'd have a wicked time out on the tiles with him. Also, Polly seems far too conscious of being an "artiste" - too much Cave and Beefheart, not enough Johnson and Williams. Tricky is far more real. Polly Harvey is a performer all the way. At times tonight, it's like watching a high-wire trapeze act - we applaud the audacity, the flamboyance, not necessarily the craft. Which is a pity, although a nagging voice tells me that the very last thing I'd like to see is Polly Harvey shorn and stripped-down, replicating "4 Track Demos" Iive with an acoustic guitar and nowt else. It'd be both bloody terrifying and boring.
(Male) critics laud Polly Harvey for being the only female artist fully in control of her sexuality (how patronising!), yet to me she's curiously
eternal observer, too poised to ever get downand dirty the way a
Courtney wouId, the way a Jagger has. To use a much-abused phrase, she
leaves me dry, however many "black monsoons" and tempestuous nights
of passion she calls into play.
And what are we to make of this enigma called Tricky, who shuffles on almost apologetically (if ever a walk was a shrug, this is it), mock shadow-boxing all the way, followed by a bunch of be-suited, bearded and pony-tailed musicians who look as if they've stepped off the set of The Commitments? His performance is the opposite of PJ Harvey's - virtually not a show at all, with the lights so low and the eyes so closed - yet it's far more challenging, uplifting, provoking. And in Alison Goldfrapp - a girl who spends her spare time singing back-up in a hippy / dub band - he has someone who can out-Björk Björk (not difficult nowadays, admittedly).
He jokes about anal sex and the crowd's over-enthusiasm, and then proceeds to destroy us with his music. Absolutely f***ing destroys us.
From his opening torrid cover of Public Enemy's "Black Steel" (the second greatest moment ever on "The Word", no contest) through the shadowy, inclement "Ponderosa" and even sicklier "Pumpkin", where drums ooze and instruments ricochet almost unreally, samples drifting in and back and then shuffling off again, his set is sheer genius. Not a performance, no. A reaffirmation of why we all got into this initially, yes. He seems almost embarrassed at the furore he's causing out front - almost, except that sometimes he gives us a knowing wink, a sly grin, as if he knows what a genius he is all along.
If Portishead and Massive Attack make perfect music for your ex-partners to have great sex to, Tricky makes perfect music for your ex-partners to have great sex to as they strap you down and force you to watch, as carrion pick at your eyes and a beautiful hunchbacked dwarf whistles the theme to "Goldfinger". Beguiling, bewitching, bewildering, bee-a-utiful. As the set continues through the restless "Hell Is Round" and shadowy "Strugglin", the songs keep getting darker and darker, more sensuous and sensual (Alison for sex symbol of the year, anyone?), more mysterious and spooked. By the time "Aftermath" and
its hypnotic, tantalising Isaac Hayes sample, make an appearance, the hall
has fallen completely quiet - silent except for the occasional shout of
"Bugger PJ Harvey" and the slurp of a tongue in the back of someone else's
throat. After a second, even more blistering, run-through of "BIack Steel"
has finished echoing round the hall and Polly Harvey's men have turned
the sound system up full to put a stop to another Tricky encore, I'm left
thinking, "How arrogant is this woman, that she thinks she can follow the
best artist in the UK?" In the past, I'd have left straight after - love
for PJ Harvey, or no. But then, when she appears, she holds me spellbound
for close on an hour - through the deep-throated, husky readings of the
opening "Bring You My Love" and "Monsta", through the eerie feedback and
unearthly crushed guitar on "Water" and a severely truncated "Send His
Love", until the unwelcome advent of "50ft Queenie", a song well out of
place in this new, more showy, Polly Harvey set. I watch her every move,
almost open-mouthed at the way she's blossomed, the way she's so manipulative.
What a killer dress! What a killer stage show! What a killer woman!
And then she throws it all away again with a couple of bogstandard bottleneck blues work-outs for the encore, the kind of thing even shambling C86 apologists would've been hard placed to explain away. Me thinks Polly is a little too concerned about authenticity. Which is plainly ricliculous. She doesn't need to try.
She's a natural.
The contradictions continue.
Tricky - the reluctant, reclusive, self-effacing one - is the one with a Top Five album on his hands, riding on the crest of fashion. Polly Harvey - the deliberately provocative, flambayant, even more enigmatic one - is the artist who gets the critical plaudits, but fails to shift units.
Both are close to the peak of their powers, but you can't help feeling Tricky'Il be forgotten in 24 months time - fickleness of fashion 'n' all - while Polly Harvey will be bamboozling the critics for years to come.
A storming, exhilirating show.
photos: Steven Sweet
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