Polly Jean Harvey hasn’t performed live since a festival in Mexico City in 2017. You have to go back much further to when she previously graced an Irish stage. While Harvey did a speaking engagement at the 2013 Festival of Writing and Ideas at Borris House, Co Carlow, her last Irish live appearance was a solo show without a band at Electric Picnic in 2006.
This isn’t your usual case of a musician taking a hiatus or career break, but a performer blossoming into an even more distinguished artist. Last year, Harvey published an epic prose poem entitled Orlam. Her latest album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, is loosely based on this work, which is one of the first books written in the Dorset dialect in years and her second volume of poetry, following The Hollow of the Hand with the photographer Seamus Murphy in 2015.
Harvey used to soak up her inspirations from punk rock, Steve Albini, and Captain Beefheart, but now views herself as a creative in the mould of the Turner Prize-winning director and visual artist Steve McQueen, who reportedly instructed her to address a disconnection with music by focusing on the three methods of expression she loves the most – namely words, images, and sound – without any obligation to create.
She walks onstage at this historic and hallowed theatre on Dame Street just after 8pm, looking radiant and youthful in a white dress, Harvey and her current four-piece band, featuring her long-term collaborator and producer John Parish, launch into performing I Inside the Old Year Dying from start to finish live for the very first time. It has clearly been rehearsed to perfection by a singer, band, lighting designer, and crew who are on top of their game.
Harvey and company work their way through a bumper set of twelve jaw-dropping encores
The stage set and backdrop is by the Olivier, Tony and OBIE award-winning set and costume designer Rae Smith. Polly and her band theatrically use benches and pieces of furniture on the stage, while a few scrawny branches of a tree is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. Rather than Beckett’s Dublin mountains, the set reflects Harvey’s imaginative hinterland of deepest Dorset.
There is an unwritten rule that if you perform an album in its entirety you reward the faithful with a few classics. Harvey and company work their way through a bumper set of twelve jaw-dropping encores from selections culled from Let England Shake to the skeletal raucous punk of Man-Size and Dress.
Polly doesn’t utter a word until she introduces her band at the end of the show and closes the main set with To Bring You My Love. After a standing ovation, she returns to deliver C’Mon Billy and White Chalk. In addition to being a multidisciplinary artist, she is also a highly-accomplished multi-instrumentalist, playing harmonica, acoustic and electric guitars, bone-like percussion on Down By the Water, and an autoharp on The Words that Maketh Murder.
After another bow, she’s off. A dream-like evening and two hours of live music at its most magical is over in a flash.