PJ Harvey At Glastonbury Review: Marina Abramovic opens silencing then spellbinding performance

Performance artist Marina Abramovic joined PJ Harvey for a set that intertwined art and activism.

PJ Harvey

by Danny Eccleston |
Published on

Anyone suspecting that PJ Harvey at Glastonbury in 2024 might not be a serious matter will have been put right only a minute or so into what served as her introduction.

Noted and forbidding performance artist Marina Abramovic, equal parts nerves and artistic intensity, led the crowd in seven minutes of respectfully-observed silence (try it; it’s a long time). Instructing us to close our eyes (OK, MOJO peeked), she unfurled her all-white outfit which, once she extended her arms, Christ-like, became a giant peace sign. Thus, she hoped, our powerful energy would enter the world and mitigate war and violence. Good luck with that.

It was, at the very least, a rare moment at a modern Glastonbury where the twin poles of music performance and radical activism – ever-present but more and more conveniently segregated – drew together. As such it was the ideal amuse bouche for Polly Harvey, whose equal commitment to music and activism, especially over recent albums, could hardly be questioned.

Emerging in a white smock decorated with skeletal, black, leafless trees, Harvey promises austerity where the festival-set norm is Tigger-ish eagerness-to-please. Her staging – a Yeovil junk-shop collection of wooden furniture, with a pew, and for some reason a table set for tea – and her band (including longtime collaborator John Parrish) – all in light grey, as if the beneficiaries of a job-lot from Muji, emit monastic vibes. And she opens the show with three songs from challenging 2023 album I Inside The Old Year Dying that offer no guarantee of engaging a curious rather than committed crowd.

But guess what: it’s beautiful. Harvey moves slowly, balletically, with some of Abramovic’s symbolic rigour. Her eyes gleam with an otherworldliness – like the doomed heroine in a folk ballad. Over the dubby undertow of The Nether-Edge she stalks bendily around her band, keening. The sturdier beat of I Inside The Old Year Dying prompt three bros in their mid-twenties near MOJO to do a kind of ’luuded twist. Atop the toxic fanfare of The Glorious Land, her voice is birdlike, magical.

And just when you’ve come to accept and embrace that maybe this will, daringly, be a pure showcase of Recent Peej, there’s a change of pace. Harvey applies lip-balm and rips into Rid Of Me’s 50ft Queenie, inhabiting its insane ramalam and unmoored narrator as if it’s 1993 again. Suddenly the Polly Harvey of 1995’s Glastonbury performance – in the pink catsuit and foot-long false eyelashes, with a band steeped in Beefheart blues-gnarl – is not a million miles away. It’s spine-tingling

And it’s as if a brake has been taken off. What follows is epic sensuality (Black Hearted Love), quiet drama (Harvey begins The Garden at an escritoire, apparently reading a letter – the song flows out of that private communion and returns into a drawer in the same desk at the end). Then, more thrilling ’90s snarl in the shape of Man-Size and Dress.

She ends with a sparse To Bring You My Love, seemingly entranced. Its lyric – “I was born in the desert” – and litany of barriers to the narrator’s questing trek has a double meaning in an era of mass migration prompted by conflict and climate change, one that can’t be lost on the singer. In the crowd, Palestine flags wave, giving the BBC a headache – there’s no preserving a neutrality-of-iconography here.

So, art and activism share a bed after all. Polly Harvey in excelsis.

Set List

Prayer At The Gate

The Nether-Edge

I Inside the Old Year Dying

The Glorious Land

Let England Shake

The Words That Maketh Murder

50ft Queenie

Black Hearted Love (PJ Harvey & John Parish cover)

The Garden

Man-Size

To Bring You My Love

Stay on MOJO4MUSIC across the weekend for full coverage of Glastonbury 2024’s best music including Squeeze's opening greatest hits show, Paul Heaton and Fatboy Slim's Housemartin's reunionDexys at the Park StageLCD Soundsystem and more!

Picture: PJ Harvey, Bergen, Norway, June 2024. Credit: Per Ole Gagen/Getty

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