No one can accuse PJ Harvey of pumping the marketplace with nostalgic hits—apart from her recent reflections on imperialist history and social desertion.
The English singer certainly hasn’t been working the limelight. Monday’s concert at House of Blues was Harvey’s first proper Boston show in over a decade (her 2009 stop with collaborator John Parish mined their joint catalog instead of hers). And it supported last year’s Grammy-nominated The Hope Six Demolition Project, a bold if oft-bleak rumination on her journal-ready travels to Afghanistan, Kosovo and blighted Washington, D.C., that took up half of her 20-song show.
Yet the night proved triumphant. Harvey commanded the spotlight with theatrical and musical verve, fashionably sporting a mohawk-like headpiece and centering a conceptually unusual 10-piece ensemble that brought flesh, blood and brimstone to the newer material. The musicians filed onstage like a funereal procession of droning saxes (with Harvey on alto), marching snares and bass drum. And they left 90 minutes later the same way, lined across stage-front mics to chant a variation on the gospel standard “Wade in the Water” out of Harvey’s “River Anacostia.”
Material from The Hope Six Demolition Project dominated the front half, along with songs from 2011’s even better Let England Shake (including the clap-spiced “The Words That Maketh Murder”) and a surprising, sweetly sober “When Under Ether” from 2007’s piano-laced White Chalk. But patience finally paid off for old fans when Harvey ripped into a full-band broadside of “50 Ft. Queenie” from her original punk-blues trio, followed by a bewitching “Down by the Water” and “To Bring You My Love,” showcasing Harvey’s clarion voice in sustained resonance.
If that was the only shot of nostalgia from Harvey’s ’90s heyday, it rounded out the experience perfectly without being the focus. And despite the odd shuffle of saxes, keys and marching-band percussion more than guitars, the textural skronk of this ensemble (including Parish and ex-Bad Seeds mainstay Mick Harvey) summoned the same primitive blues spirit that fueled Harvey’s old Patti Smith-meets-Captain Beefheart din before she also branched beyond.