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Coachella 2011: 'When I stand on the stage, I want to give the truth,' says PJ Harvey

April 18, 2011 |  3:57 pm

00coachellapjharvey During PJ Harvey’s Sunday night set, one of the repasts offered by Coachella before festival headliner Kanye West commanded the main stage, a fan waved a homemade sign that got caught on camera. “PJ Harvey,” it read, “is the REAL closing headliner.” The crowd cheered, the sentiment validating the feverish loyalty Harvey’s listeners trade in, the kind that almost feels sealed by blood oath.

Outfitted in a white dress corseted at the waist like a parlor-bound Victorian wife, her sculptural feathered headpiece shooting back from her obsidian hair, Harvey looked ready for the Wild West’s dreamscape, ready to hitch her covered wagon to the trash-strewn grounds. Cradling an autoharp in her arms, Harvey, in her Coachella debut, assessed the crowd with a benevolent gaze that seemed as if it could snap into menace if provoked.

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Harvey played with her old pal and frequent collaborator John Parish at her side, and her set marched out war-scarred testaments from her latest album, “Let England Shake,” and a few older songs, such as “The Sky Lit Up,” played with more chug than the original, a sense of certainty replacing the near-hysteria.

“When I stand on the stage,” Harvey said, in an interview earlier in the day, “I want to give the truth.” We were speaking in her cavernous artist’s trailer on the Polo Grounds, about how she tried to avoid repeating her work. Over the course of eight albums, Harvey has cut a snake’s trail through heartsick alienation, and now with her latest, a nation’s embattled history. “It wouldn’t be honest of me,” she said, “to keep drawing from my past.”

With songs such as “Rid of Me,” Harvey whispered and screamed a message: It was acceptable to be difficult, brutal even, in love. But it’s a feeling that’s distant to her now. “I still love that song, but I wrote it many years ago,” she said. “There are other things I want to play now.” Has she moved away from writing personal screeds? “I would hesitate to say that any of my work is personal… you step into characters.”

For “Let England Shake,” two years in the making, Harvey was drawn to the characters of her country, particularly voices lost to time or the patriotic machine. “I wanted to use human language,” Harvey said, “not overt political language. I wanted to inhabit the lives of those who have been affected, not the political leaders.”

Onstage, she affected even more of a commonplace kind of tone to her singing than on the album, a nasal kind of twang that gives a mantra like “What if I take my problems to the United Nations?” an even richer sense of doomed fallacy. The line is an echo from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” one of the few samples, including a Kurdish love song and the chorus from the classic reggae song "Blood and Fire," woven throughout the album.

No matter what kind of diplomacy her songs may call for, at her heart, Harvey will always be a vigilante. Near the end of her set, her eyes were glittering and she stalked the stage more. Her lips screwing into a snarl, she exclaimed, “I want a pistol. I want a gun!” from “Big Exit.” Had Harvey been saying the same line on the same patch of desert 200 years ago, something tells me she would’ve run anyone off her land.

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-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: Singer PJ Harvey performs during Day 3 of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio. Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images.