For a PJ Harvey fan in Boston, Marathon Monday’s House of Blues show has been a long time coming. The British art-rock icon doesn’t perform stateside on a particularly regular basis, and it’s been a decade-plus since her last proper solo headlining appearance here in Massachusetts. Her return was feverishly anticipated, and packed a nearly sold-out venue on a Monday (April 17) where public transit hazards and a Lansdowne Street swarming with blacked-out day-drinkers would normally convince most sane people to stay home.
With no opening act and an 8:30 p.m. set time, the evening was unconventional from the start. Harvey and her sizeable backing band marched on stage to the beat of “Chain of Keys” from last year’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, and proceeded to spend the set’s first half focused entirely on that record and its 2011 spiritual predecessor Let England Shake. Both LPs showcase Harvey’s most explicitly political songwriting to date, and the uncompromising move of touring a set that stacks so many of those tracks at the outset is another career instance of Harvey bucking expectations and doing precisely what she wants instead.
In recent years, Harvey has strayed far afield of the grungy punk-blues that defines her well-known early work, and from her more traditional alt-rock arrangements of the early 2000s too. Hope Six’s blues-y palette of shambling percussion, electric guitars, and saxophones served as the template for the night, and Harvey’s talented and nuanced band (which included former Bad Seed Mick Harvey and frequent collaborator John Parish) made impressive use of it. The new songs took on a more assertive and impactful tone than their recorded counterparts — particularly on the haunting, set-closing coda of “River Anacostia.” The ensemble was up to the task of interpreting a few old favorites as well. “50ft Queenie,” the night’s lone throwback to the power-trio days of 1993’s Rid of Me, absolutely slayed in the expanded arrangement. Its segue into To Bring You My Love’s “Down By The Water” was the night’s crowning crowd-pleasing moment.
The degree to which the show didn’t feel like a crowd-pleasing effort, however, was one of its most remarkable qualities. The evening might have benefited from a few more rave-ups like “Queenie” for a considerable portion of the audience, but that wasn’t the performance that Harvey was aiming for. Atmosphere was a detailed consideration — in both the stark lighting design and Harvey’s request that the noisy bars at the right and left side of the room be closed for the set — and so was a structure that emphasized the sober and world-weary tone of her recent work. Perhaps it wasn’t the set we expected, but it was an honest and dazzling performance just the same.