"It's hard to see you!" a fan yelled out in the middle of PJ Harvey's sold-out concert at the 9:30 club Wednesday night. Playing on a stage bathed in dark red and smoky blue lighting, the 35-year-old English post-punk rocker did seem to be hiding in plain sight. Her long dark bangs, hanging in front of her eyes like a protective shield, added to the mystery. As with her purposefully obscure, fiercely ambiguous songs, Harvey will make only so much clear. It's up to listeners to decipher the rest.
Playing for 80 minutes with her superb three-piece band, Harvey reveled much but revealed little in songs both new and quite old. Beginning with the beguiling "Fountain," a gloomy plaint that brings to mind Patti Smith's grimmer fare, she evoked the pain of a wounded creature.
A sparkling "Good Fortune" was more upbeat and engaging, as were other crowd-pleasers such as "Victory," "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" and "Uh Huh Her," the title track to her new album.
But the downside of the show was that it lacked real spontaneity and passion.
It probably didn't help that the concert began just a little after 7 p.m. Harvey's songs are made for much later, much darker hours. The band's playing was flawless, Harvey's voice impeccable and the overall sound exquisite. But it was all a bit by-the-numbers, and the moments in which audience and artist truly connected were scarce.
In fact, it was a brief equipment malfunction that was responsible for one of the most memorable moments. As a roadie scrambled to repair a cable, a fan handed Harvey a small black rubber duck. Harvey squeezed a squeak out of it into the microphone. "It's a black duckie," she said in her lilting accent. "It's black . . . like my heart." It was a funny line, and a rare glimpse into the person behind the persona. The night could have used a bit more of that sort of thing.
-- Joe Heim
American Composers Forum
The Washington chapter of the American Composers Forum presented "Voices" on Wednesday in its 50-seat Mead Theatre Lab, a small black box at the back of the spare and stylish Flashpoint arts space. Deducting performers, publishers, composers, critics and their friends from the audience, attendance was about zero.
The Theatre Lab was still decked out in election paraphernalia from an improv show by a group that shares the space. Speakers stood on little stools, the electronic equipment sat in the corner and percussion instruments were strewn across the stage.
The first piece by Robert Erickson, "High Flyer," performed and introduced by the very able, articulate and charming flutist Carrie Rose, conjured sounds that were reminiscent of Tan Dun's "Ghost Opera." It, like Erickson's other piece for solo flute "Quoq," belongs to the category "interesting." The latter work, named after James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," is easily as comprehensible as the book.
Stephen Lilly presented "Like staring at a word . . . ," his work for voice and spliced tape. It was performed by Stacey Mastrian, for whom it was written. A comparison with "Repons" would be doing Pierre Boulez an injustice, though it's not entirely unlike it. Presented as it was, it was really more performance art and vulnerable to the accusation of being gratuitously difficult. It was the sort of thing you are very glad to have experienced without necessarily wanting to revisit it.
The improvisation session that followed with Grace Chung (jazz vocals), John Kamman (guitar), Anubodh (bansuri -- an Indian flute) and Flaco Woods (percussion) ranged from pointless to imaginative and highly entertaining. Woods, especially, stood out for his imaginative playing when the others let jazz-inspired pieces succumb to a mood of meditative ragas.
-- Jens F. Laurson