REVIEW: Public Service Broadcasting, Bristol O2 Academy by Mike Norton 5/5
There were so many moments of sublime beauty during this stellar performance that it’s almost impossible to pick one out. But, for me, the highpoint came just over half-way through when the two singers from able support act The Smoke Fairies came back on stage to sing Valentina.
It’s not a complicated song. A clever, skippy drumbeat. A plaintive arpeggio picked out on a spacey guitar. A wash of electronic backfill. And the two women singing the word « Valentina » between them. But the sum of these parts was simply splendid – poignant, soaring and hypnotic. When the song finished and the cheering had died down, the packed O2 Academy audience seemed almost stunned in to silence. And then a woman near the back said: « Your band is brilliant ». She didn’t shout it. She just said it quite loudly. And she spoke for everyone there.
Public Service Broadcasting have come a long way since they were last in Bristol in November 2013. With one album under their belt, I wondered then if their idea of creating songs around samples from information films from the 40s and 50s was sustainable. This year’s second album The Race for Space – which takes samples from the US and Russian space programmes of the 60s – has proved that it is.
Live, there are just four band members. « Frontman » and musical virtuoso J Wildgoose esq (who neither sings nor talks), superb drummer Wrigglesworth, audio-visual expert Mr B (inventor of a model sputnik that rose from the stage during the set) and new member J F Abraham on percussion, bass and flugelhorn. There was also the surprise appearance of a brass section for a couple of numbers.
Interestingly, the average age of the audience (probably 40-plus) was significantly older than that of the band itself. That’s probably why, despite many of the songs’ driving beats, there was no mosh pit, no excessive exuberance at the front. At the most, I saw widespread and enthusiastic head-nodding.
The band’s clever blend of voices and images from the past with live instruments and a host of modern music technology is a distinctive and winning formula. But they’re funny, too – using samples to talk to the audience, telling us at one point to « simmer down ».
Some of the older songs have quickly become stalwarts – Night Mail, The Now Generation, Theme from PSB and If War Should Come all went down well. And the biggest cheers of the night came for Spitfire and Everest – the climax of an absolute tour-de-force encore.
But Gagarin, Go! and The Other Side from the new album were also magnificent.
Quite simply, we were watching a band at the top of its game. A couple of times during the set, the members flicked smiles at each other. What they’re doing is brilliant. And they know it.