Festival Music

PJ Harvey

Playhouse, Edinburgh

Nicola Meighan

four stars

SHE USED to cradle an autoharp onstage, but now PJ Harvey brandishes a saxophone. The Dorset rock revolutionary variously discharged squalling brass fanfares and wielded the instrument aloft like a weapon (or maybe a shield) throughout a set that elevated last year's Hope Six Demolition Project LP to a master-class in theatre, music and performance art – and upturned groundbreaking old favourites along the way.

The minimalist, austere staging – brutalist backdrop; raven-black uniforms; bass drums lit like low-slung moons – felt funereal, thrilling and wired to social commentary, while Harvey's political torch-songs and fired-up anthems spanned her career, from a roof-raising take on 1993's femme-punk wig-out 50 Ft Queenie, through the stark, nostalgic beauty of 2007's White Chalk, to the battle-worn pastoral psychedelia of The Glorious Land, from 2011's Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake.

Emerging onstage in a 10-strong marching band procession, Harvey summoned dread and ecstasy on current album tracks like gospel dirge Chain of Keys, end-times industrial aria The Ministry of Defence, and deceptively upbeat pop cantata The Community Of Hope. These songs, and the Hope Six Demolition Project in general – which explores Harvey's observations of poverty and war in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC – lyrically conjure more questions than answers, but perhaps that is the point.

Given her endlessly questing art, and her exquisite command of stagecraft – nothing is an accident – it also bears noting that Harvey was the only woman onstage. She was flanked by an incredible band (including long-time collaborators John Parish and Bad Seed Mick Harvey), but the casting also served to remind that women's voices are still in the minority. What a voice she has though, always: operatic, angry, devastating.