CHICAGO — Suddenly, just as Todd Trainer was winding down his ponderous set of meandering guitar noise and mumbled lyrics, a woman with a red electric guitar appeared by his side. It was Polly Jean Harvey, dressed hair to boots in black, and she'd come to make her opening act rock. She strummed along, sang harmony, smiled knowingly to the crowd, and singlehandedly gave Trainer's finale the gifts of melody and charisma.
Harvey, the 31-year-old British rocker closing out her American tour Friday night at the Vic, commanded her own performance the same way. She barely moved or talked onstage, letting the tension-and-release anthems from her new album — Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea — act as ringmasters for a sharp and committed band.
When Harvey emerged for her own set, she was alone. Before her four mates could take the stage, she had to get something off her chest.
"Lick my legs, and I'm on fire!" Harvey demanded, over and over, building her opening song to a devastating falsetto. Then, before her 1992 anthem of lost love and sexual longing could devolve into repetition, she dramatically cut off "Rid of Me," leaving the crowd quiet for the first and last time.
Once her band joined her, Harvey displayed the "Rid of Me" intensity in fits. Her rhythm section — drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Eric Drew Feldman — locked into a rock and roll groove almost as furious as Harvey's declaration of "I want a pistol, I want a gun" in "Big Exit." The singer seemed conscious of pace, following the rumbling rocker with the soft and pretty piano ballad "Horses in My Dreams."
Feldman frequently abandoned his bass completely, joining guitarists Tim Farthing and Margaret Fielder, who absentmindedly stalked stage right like a drunken mosher. The three-guitar approach added texture to "Good Fortune" and "Man-Size" but sacrificed the crucial bottom and rhythmic anchor. Ellis, a sympathetic drummer who followed Harvey's vocals without losing the groove, almost made up for it.
Harvey, who emerged in the early '90s as a not-quite-grunge descendant of Patti Smith and the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, acknowledges Smith's influence more than ever before on Stories From the City. Though she seems far more comfortable in the spotlight than the punk godmother, there was no mistaking where the clear, strident voice of "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore" came from.
Perhaps having expended the band's energy on "Big Exit" and "This Is Love," Harvey tossed off an encore of "Down by the Water" (her biggest radio hit) and "Sheela-Na-Gig" (a cult favorite from her debut, Dry) with a fraction of the preceding inspiration. The holiday season will do that to you.