Plenty of artists can command a stage through pyrotechnic trickery or brain stem-searing volume, but there are precious few capable of doing so by merely walking out onto the proscenium — and none manage to do so more gracefully and effortlessly than Polly Jean Harvey. The singer-songwriter didn’t afford herself much in the way of a safety net at the first of two Stateside appearances in support of the breathlessly minimal Island album “White Chalk” (released last week with surprisingly little fanfare). Harvey undertook the perf entirely on her own, dividing her time among piano, guitar and autoharp — eking a distinctly different emotion from each.
Harvey, dressed in a white Victorian dress styled after the one she wears on the new disc’s cover, cut a steely swath through the set’s early stretches, allowing the brawny chords of “To Bring You My Love” to ring threateningly through the theater. When she turned her attention to piano, however, the sonic mood — and the singer’s own mien — changed palpably, with the introspective delicacy of “When Under Ether” (a pleading missive borrowed in part from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”) creating a quicksand-like empathy that only the most jaded could attempt to escape.
In general, Harvey seemed to be in good spirits, joking at one point that the tchotchke-laden stage was her attempt to “bring most of my home along to keep me comfortable.” The trick worked, imparting a parlor-like feel to the title track of “White Chalk,” on which her harp playing bridged the rather wide gap between the medieval and the postmodern. Ditto for the cautiously hopeful “Grow Grow Grow,” on which Harvey sought emotional hand-me-downs with the anticipation of a woman who’s discovered a long-lost family Bible replete with buried ancestral treasures.
The Bible — God, the Devil and all of their various minions — figured prominently in the 90-minute set’s songs, evoking dances of danger (“Down by the Water”) and sensual interludes with equal aplomb. There were those in the aud who seemed to be left wanting more given the relatively sparse nature of the perf, but those who waited for the afterglow to wash over them were rewarded immensely.
PJ Harvey performs at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles on Monday.